The helicopter dropped from the sky, falling like a graceless bird toward the abiding sea. Dana Kirsten clutched her seat, willing her hands to be talons. The aircraft, which had seemed incredibly small in Jamaica, now felt positively minuscule.
Like a coffin.
The pilot nudged the yoke. The roaring machine responded like a spirited horse. The descent stopped less than a hundred feet from the water. The pilot looked at Dana, a plug of chewing tobacco causing his lower lip to protrude like a goiter. “You look scared. I thought you said you liked flying?”
Dana took a breath just to see if her lungs were working. “Flying, yes. Falling, not so much.”
He laughed. The chewing tobacco formed a black teardrop on the corner of his mouth. “Wasn’t trying to scare you. Well, I wasn’t trying just to scare you. Wanted to show you something.” He pointed out the right side.
Below her in what had been a seamless sea, a school of bottle-nosed dolphins sliced through the placidity, carving white gashes in the blue-green canvas. Dana counted eight, then spotted another three dorsal fins farther out to the right. One pair swam so close together that, from her vantage point, it looked as if they were touching.
“That’s a mama and her baby,” the pilot said. “Here, look at this.”
He flipped a switch and a monitor that sat between them winked to life. At first she couldn’t tell what she was seeing, then as the pilot manipulated a small, pencil-size, joystick, the scene changed, revealing a close-up of the sea speeding beneath them.
“I’ve got a geo-stabilized camera mounted under the bird. I’ll be making a regular flyby while you’re on the island. Here, you try it. It’s easy. Forward is zoom in, back is pull out, left and right are left and right.”
Dana maneuvered the joystick. He was right. It was easy. Within seconds she had found and zoomed in on the dolphins. Sure enough, the one on the left, toward the protection of the pod, was significantly smaller than the one on the right. Mama protecting junior from the horrors that emerge from the wild of the sea. “They’re incredible.”
“Thank you,” the pilot said, smiling as if dolphins were his own creation. “Little odd though. Don’t usually see them in this area. Got to be at least a dozen miles from the course they usually run.”
For a moment Dana wished she had a camera, then realized how silly that was. Once they landed everything she saw, said, or did would be on camera—everything for the next seven weeks.
“You think that’s something, watch this.” The pilot hit another button. The scene changed to two people gauzed in static. He turned a small knob and the image cleared.
“Not just television.” He flipped a switch on the side of the monitor. Voices issued from a tiny speaker. She could hear perfectly but couldn’t understand a word.
“Japanese television,” he explained.
“That’s nice,” she said, not sure what response he was looking for.
“And not just Japanese. Chinese, Russian, every movie station in creation—I can get them all with this. My brother is in the Navy, works in electronics. He fixed me up with a special satellite dish that will pick up signals others can’t. I can watch movies or TV shows from almost anywhere.”
“You speak Japanese?”
“Nope, but if I ever learn, I’ll have something to watch.”
The helicopter overshot the dolphins.
“Do you have to go so fast?” she asked, her stomach still fluttering from their earlier drop.
The pilot dabbed away the teardrop of tobacco with a handkerchief. “You’re the one running late.”
She checked her watch. Late, of course. She hated her watch. Not that there was anything wrong with it. It was a good, durable timepiece. But it always seemed to be mocking her, a jeering, digital reminder of just how late she really was—again.
This time, however, she had an excuse.
Six months ago when she first tried out for 24/7, America’s newest reality television show, she made it all the way to the final round only to miss out by one. Then, less than twenty-four hours ago, Nelson Rycroft, the show’s creator, had called. A contestant had dropped out because of illness. Dana was the new contestant, number twelve.
And now, thanks to that simple phone call, Dana Kirsten had a chance to win a miracle.
She hadn’t felt this good, this full of hope since graduating from high school. A time when, thanks to her talents as an athlete, the world seemed hers for the taking. She had just set two high school track records and won a scholarship to the University of Florida when she became pregnant.
“I hear they’ve got a doctor, a fisherman, even a former nun on the show,” the pilot said. “So what do you do?”
“Depends on the day. Monday through Thursday I’m a checker at Save-a-Lot. Friday and alternate Sundays I work at a boutique in the mall. Saturday night I tend bar. But mostly, I’m a mom.”
“Damn,” the pilot spit into a Dixie cup he pulled from beside his seat. “When do you rest?”
Dana smiled. “Christmas.”
“So what’s your husband do while you’re off working all them jobs?”
“I’m not married.”
The child’s father had been a junior in college the year Dana graduated from high school. She thought she was in love with him. And he thought she was a nice distraction from his studies. When he learned of the pregnancy, he went crazy, declaring that the child was not his and calling Dana a “whore,” even though she had never been with another man. The last thing he said to her was “I never want to see you again.” So far he had gotten his wish.
Pregnancy derailed her plans, and the world that had seemed so bright and full of promise became dark and scary. Though devastated by the news, her parents were nonetheless supportive. But they weren’t wealthy and the only way Dana could afford to support a child was to take any job she could find.
Since it is difficult to run track when your body is being measured in trimesters, the scholarship disappeared and with it any chance of college. At eighteen, Dana Kirsten was on her own.
Then Jenna was born and it was as if heaven had opened up and their brightest angel had tumbled into her arms.
“How many kids?” the pilot asked.
“Just one. A girl. Jenna. She’s ten.”
“Got a picture?”
“Does a dolphin have a blowhole?” Dana pulled a three-by-five from her breast pocket, one of the personal items she had elected to bring with her. The pilot looked at the snapshot, shifted uncomfortably in his seat, then handed it back. “Cute, ah, cute kid.”
Dana was so accustomed to the leg braces and arm crutches that she sometimes forgot how uncomfortable they made others.
Jenna was two when the doctors diagnosed her with a severe form of muscular dystrophy. It would be a miracle, they said, if she lived to see her sixteenth birthday.
“She, ah, been in an accident?” The pilot may have been ill at ease, but he was still curious.
He nodded as if, in addition to being the creator of dolphins, he was also a medical expert. “The Jerry Lewis disease, right?”
So much for being an expert. “Yeah, the Jerry Lewis disease.” It was a common misconception that there was one disease called muscular dystrophy. In reality there were forty separate neuromuscular diseases. Of which, the doctors told Dana, Jenna had one of the worst.
At that moment a clock had begun to tick. An insidious tick, tick, tick, running in the back of her mind, counting down the seconds until Jenna was gone and Dana’s world came to a crashing end. For ten years she had been consumed by fear and that ticking clock. She imagined an autopsy revealing deep ruts in her brain worn by the repetitions of the same question. How can I save my daughter?
And now—she had a chance at a miracle.
An experimental treatment, being tested in Switzerland but still forbidden in the United States, was offering great promise. It would be years before it was okayed by the FDA, ultimately too late for Jenna. But there was hope.
The winner of 24/7 would receive two million dollars and—as the often-televised promo exclaimed—“his or her heart’s desire.” Dana’s heart’s desire was for Jenna to become part of the Switzerland test group.
The island jutted out of the sea like a mole on the perfect face of the Virgin Mary.
Located between Jamaica and Haiti, it was roughly two square miles in size and shaped like a teardrop.
At their low altitude Dana had to look up to see the top of the massive red-and-white tower rising obscenely in the tropi- cal air.
It’s like humanity giving the technological finger to God.
She knew the tower was merely the most visible aspect of the most powerful television transmitter ever created—and just the beginning of the mechanical marvels awaiting below. Even so, an odd sense of foreboding settled over her as she gazed out the window.
Sheer, white cliffs ranging from five to forty-five feet ringed the exterior. A small beach and a makeshift dock, both located on the middle part of the teardrop, offered the only ship access to the sea.
The interior was covered in scrub trees, grass, and underbrush, while closer to the beach, the island was mostly exposed rock and erratic cacti. Made of raised coral and limestone, the island was porous. Sinkholes, the contestants were warned, were a very real danger, particularly following a powerful rainstorm.
It was here that they would play the game. Twelve players competing for seven weeks constantly on-camera and being voted off one by one by viewers. But the real problem would be the challenges. Designed to their individual psyches, they promised to push contestants to face their greatest fears. All in the name of entertainment.
Excerpted from 24/7 © Copyright 2001 by Jim Brown. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine, an imprint of Random House. All rights reserved.