by:  Jennifer Rowland 


In the sanctuary of Dr. LoNigro's mountain cabin, Sam and Al make strides not only on Al's physical and emotional healing, but also on Sam's string theory.  As the week goes on, more than that is solidified as Al learns to trust again and Sam learns that it takes more than ideas and theories to see his dream realized.

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Chapter Six


Wednesday, April 24, 1985


Al stretched in his cot like a cat waking up in a warm spot of sunshine.  He froze in midstretch with the realization that he was waking up.  He’d actually been able to fall asleep last night after all.


“Take that, you damn voice.”


For a change, no automatic response came from the recesses of his mind.  He wasn’t ready to say the voice was permanently gone, but for now the victory was his.


Al sat up and started to say something to Sam, but noticed that his bed was empty.  He must have awakened before Al and gone to fix breakfast.  A low rumble came from Al’s stomach.  Breakfast sounded like a good idea.  He got out of bed and padded out of the room.


“Good morning, Sam,” Al said as he headed into the kitchen.  He stopped in the doorway when he saw that the young man was still at the kitchen table, his head pillowed in his folded arms.  Tear-streaks stained Sam’s cheeks.  “Aw, Sam,” Al said, sitting down across the table from the sleeping man.


Al quickly choked back tears of his own as he stared at Sam.  Why do you care about me so much?  I’m not worth it.’  He cleared his throat to keep from crying, but the noise also served as an alarm clock of sorts for Sam.


Startled, Sam quickly sat up.  As soon as he saw Al, he rubbed his face to clear it.


“You didn’t go back to bed last night,” Al said in a kind voice.


“I, uh, I guess I fell asleep here.”


“I guess you did.”  Al smiled and laughed.  “I don’t imagine you slept too well there.”


Sam shrugged, rolling a crick out of his neck.  “Were you able to get any sleep?”


“Actually, yeah, I was.”


“You were?”  Sam sat up straighter.  “Then it did help?”


“Maybe.”  Al wasn’t ready to commit to anything more than that.  “You want some breakfast?” he asked, getting up to search the cabinets.


Sam took a sip of his coffee as he nodded.  “Gaaa,” he spit it out.  Cold, stale coffee wasn’t a taste he was fond of.


“I’ll make some fresh coffee, too,” Al laughed.


Sam thanked him and stretched in the chair, groaning as stiff muscles lodged their protests.


“You know, a hot shower should help work those out,” Al said as he pulled a box of Bisquick from the cabinet.  “I hope this is still good,” he commented, giving the box a shake.


“Do you need some help?” Sam asked as he got up from the chair.  He groaned again and tried to work the kinks from his neck and back.


“No, I’ve got it.  Go take your shower and I should have something that’s edible, hopefully, when you’re done.”


“Okay,” Sam agreed.  He started for the doorway, then paused and turned back.  “Al, I was thinking.  Maybe you don’t need to actually talk to someone to still get it out.”


Al sighed and put the box down on the counter.  Before his temper could set free an angry retort, he remembered the tearstains on Sam’s face.  The kid must have stayed awake with regret over last night, and he didn’t need to be punished for that.  “What do you mean?” he asked, trying to keep his tone level.


“It seems . . . I mean . . . you said you slept well, last night, right?”


“I slept,” Al said.  “I don’t know if I’d qualify it as sleeping well yet.”  He shook his head.  “Go on.”


“Well, maybe the important thing is letting it out.  Do you think writing it down, like in a journal, would help?”


Al stood silent, his face wooden.  Sam shifted his weight nervously, fearing he’d overstepped his bounds.  The words “I’m sorry” immediately sprang to his lips, but he didn’t let them spill from his tongue.


“I guess I could give it a try,” Al finally said, slowly.  “It sure as hell can’t make things worse.”


Sam’s eyes widened at how easily Al conceded.  He’d expected to be shut out, or at least have an argument on his hands.  Once again, he found himself unable to come up with words to respond.  What should he say?  Should he thank Al for taking his suggestion?  That seemed a little prideful.


“I’ll go take that shower now,” Sam said.


Nodding at him, Al turned to the counter and dumped some of the box’s contents into a bowl.  “I’ll see if I can’t get some pancakes out of this.”  He busied himself with the concoction, and Sam headed off for his shower.



“Isn’t this a little too much food for just a few days?” asked Al as Sam dropped another armload of supplies into the cart.


Sam just laughed and looked around the aisle for the next items on his mental grocery list.


“I mean, you’ve got enough here to survive a nuclear holocaust.”


Two sacks of flour joined the growing pile.


“Sam, LoNigro isn’t going to know what to do with all this food.”


“It won’t spoil, and it should save him coming into town to stock up,” Sam responded.  He headed down the aisle again.  Al sighed and pushed the cart after him.


“Maybe he likes coming into town,” Al said, eyeing a tall blonde.  He glanced at the contents of her cart, and decided not to pursue a little flirtation when he noticed the baby food and diapers.  “Hey, wait up!” he called out, as Sam rounded the corner to the refrigerated section of the small store.


“Eggs and milk,” Sam was quietly saying to himself as Al caught up to him.  He grabbed a Styrofoam container of eggs and started to pass them off to Al.  When he didn’t feel the captain take hold, Sam turned towards him.  “What is it?”


“Why are you picking that one when there’s a cardboard container right there?” Al pointed.  “Don’t you know that Styrofoam is bad for the environment?  At least you can recycle the cardboard.”


“Oh.”  Sam swapped the containers and put the cardboard package in the cart.  “I didn’t realize you cared about the environment.”


“I know, it’s probably hard to believe that I care about anything.”  Sarcasm dripped from Al’s words.


Sam reacted as if he’d been slapped.  “That isn’t what I meant,” he softly said.  He turned to get the milk.


‘Dammit, Calavicci.  Why do you keep lashing out at the kid?’  Al had let his temper flare up again, and Sam was getting the brunt of it.  He frowned, not wanting to have to offer an apology in order to make amends.  He settled for a conversational tone, instead.


“Have you seen the stuff on the news?  The hole in the ozone layer, the pollution, the landfills.  It’s just got me thinking recently, that’s all.”  Sam didn’t respond.  He just placed a half-gallon carton of milk into their cart and turned to head for the bread.  Al followed him, pushing the cart.  He stepped up his pace until he was abreast of Sam.  He cast a surreptitious glance up and down the aisle.  “Look, Sam, I know I’ve been biting your head off.  I don’t mean to.”  You’re going to have to say the words.’  “And I’m sorry.”


“White or wheat?” Sam asked, a loaf of each in his hands.  His eyes said ‘It’s okay.  Apology accepted.’


“Wheat,” Al said, a wave of relief surging through him, pounding against the rocks of bitterness that still sprang up at a moment’s notice.  He studied the accumulation of groceries in their cart.  “You forgot the orange juice.  I’ll get it.”



After their trip to town, Sam and Al had put the groceries away, filling the cabinets to capacity.  Al had laughed and insisted that LoNigro wouldn’t know what to do with all the food, nor would he probably appreciate the loss of an excuse for heading into town.  No matter what Sam said, Al argued, LoNigro was a red-blooded man and needed some female contact that tended beyond the strictly intellectual, especially when he was on vacation.  “Especially if textbooks are his idea of vacation,” Al had added.


They shared a light lunch of soup and sandwiches, since Al’s breakfast pancakes were still filling them up.  Al decided that he needed a little space and some fresh air, and headed onto the cabin’s small porch with a cigar at the ready.


He sat on the steps, idly puffing on the cigar and absorbing the scents and sounds of the woods.  The soft rustle of the wind through the evergreens provided a constant background noise for the intermittent chirps of birds and chatter of squirrels.  Al closed his eyes and leaned his head against the short railing, just letting the gentle sounds wash over him.  The breeze caressed his face like a lover, and he smiled, breathing the pine scent mingled with the smell of the tobacco that he found so calming in its own right.


Al tilted his head back, feeling the warmth of the sun on his cheeks.  Right now, he could forget about the last week, forget about everything that had happened at the project, everything that had happened in Vietnam, and even in his childhood, and just be.  Just be in the moment and revel in the peacefulness that surrounded him, enveloped him, and embraced him.


Opening his eyes, Al caught sight of a doe creeping slowly from behind two large maple trees.  She stared at him, and then hesitantly came into full view, where she stood blinking at him.  Her large, innocent brown eyes met his pain-hardened ones, and Al slowly rose from his place on the porch.  Surprisingly, she didn’t flee as he moved.  He carefully stubbed out the cigar on the porch rail and tucked the extinguished tobacco into his shirt pocket.


“Hey there, girl,” he murmured.  Still the doe remained in her spot.  Al slowly walked down the steps and inched away from the porch, fully expecting the doe to spring back into the depths of the forest.  She stayed put as he came closer.  About halfway to her, he knelt and snagged a handful of the longer grasses.  Slowly and cautiously, Al kept walking towards the deer.


The doe shifted her front feet a bit nervously as he approached, but didn’t move.  Her eyes darted from side to side when Al was but a foot away, and he stopped where he was before she could run off.


He slowly extended his hand so the grass was in front of the doe’s face.  She searched his face, then stretched her neck forward and sniffed the grass.  Another quick scan of the area, and then she nibbled at the grass.  Al moved closer as she ate.  Again, the deer shifted her feet, but didn’t run.  By now, Al was beyond amazement.


Mere inches away, Al let her sniff his free hand while she chewed the tender grass he held for her.  Knowing that at any second the doe could dart away, he reached out to rub her neck.  All that happened was the doe’s eyes widened, but she continued eating, and let him stroke her velvety coat.


“That’s a sweet girl,” Al crooned, now rubbing the doe’s long nose.  Everything he was experiencing didn’t make any sense.  He didn’t know why the deer didn’t run, and he found that he didn’t care if the mystery were ever solved.  He just wanted to enjoy the power of the moment.


Behind him, Sam looked out a window in the cabin, and couldn’t believe his eyes.  It went against everything he understood about deer to see a wild deer allowing a human to come close to it, let alone pet and feed it.  He was also amazed at the tenderness Al displayed with the doe.  Not a trace of the tension that so frequently stiffened Al’s body showed in the captain’s stance.  Even yards away, Sam could almost feel the compassion breaking free from the walls that stress and self-preservation had built up over the years.


‘I knew you had a special person in there,’ Sam thought.  Hold on to him, Al, and don’t let him slip into hiding again.’



“They’re looking better.”


Sam looked up after he changed the bandage on Al’s right wrist, but the captain was staring at a crude painting on the far wall.  Al grunted and nodded in response, keeping his gaze averted while Sam tended to the healing wounds.


Now taking Al’s left hand, Sam continued, “It shouldn’t be much longer before I can take the stitches out.”  He taped a fresh bandage in place.  The instant Sam finished the task, Al pulled his arms close and rolled his sleeves down, quickly buttoning the cuffs.  Only then would he acknowledge anything Sam said.


“Glad to hear it.”  Al’s eyes flashed downward toward his wrists.  “How do you think they’ll be by Monday?”


Sam contemplated it.  “If you keep healing like this, I think it might be safe for you to go to the hearing without bandages.”


“Good.”  Al rose from the couch and stretched his back, emitting a low moan of release as a series of cracks made their way down his spine.  “It’s too quiet in here.  Does that radio work?”


Sam got up as well and tried the switch on the radio Dr. LoNigro kept on a bookshelf.  There was a quick burp of static and then silence.  “The batteries must be dead,” Sam said, turning the radio over in his hand as he spoke.  He slid the battery compartment open and let the batteries spill into his hand.  One by one, he darted his tongue on each battery’s tip.  “They’re dead, all right,” he confirmed.


He moved to the end table, dropping the batteries on the flat surface as he pulled the catch-all drawer open.  Al tensed as if he had hidden the liquor within the drawer when Sam began rummaging in search of fresh batteries.  Sam’s hand stopped in mid-motion, much as Al expected his own had when he’d come across the vodka.


“Found the batteries?”


“Uh, no,” Sam said, shoving the drawer closed and practically jumping to his feet.  “He must keep them in the kitchen.”  He turned to sprint in that direction when Al quietly spoke.


“Sam, I found the vodka last night.”


“You--what?”  Sam froze in place and faced Al.


“I found it last night,” Al repeated.  “Pretty much the same way you did, only I was looking for the playing cards.”


“I didn’t know that was in there when I asked you to look through the drawer, Al, I swear.”


Al chuckled.  “That’s fairly obvious from your reaction.”  Sam didn’t rise to the levity he was trying for, so he grew serious.  “Why didn’t I tell you, right?  It was a test.  If I could resist that, knowing it was there, then maybe I stand a chance at beating this.  I didn’t want you swooping in like the boy scout you are and get rid of the temptation.”


Sam chewed his lip and Al could tell that the young doctor’s every nerve ending pulled towards the drawer, with the intent of grabbing the bottle and pouring its contents out.


“You didn’t drink any of it, did you?”


“No.”  Sam still looked dubious.  No!  It was half gone when I found it.”


Sam’s eyes darted toward the drawer, as if he could check the level of the bottle through the solid wood face.  “How’ve you been holding up?”


“It has been tempting,” Al admitted.  “But I haven’t even opened that drawer since I got the cards out of it last night.”  He walked over to the table and stood in front of it.  “Sam, I know you want to throw it out, but I’d appreciate it if you backed me up on this.  I have to fight this battle on my own.  I have to.”  He was one breath away from pleading, and Sam could see it in his eyes.


“Okay,” Sam relented against his every inclination.  “But, Al, promise me that if it tempts you too much, you’ll let me know.  That you’ll let me help.”


Al closed his eyes and nodded.  He opened them to connect with Sam’s earnest, worried hazel eyes.  “I promise.”


After a searching stare into Al’s deep brown eyes, Sam nodded and, satisfied, headed for the kitchen in pursuit of the elusive batteries.  He found them in the third drawer he tried.


Batteries in hand, he returned to the living room and installed them in the radio.  A basketball game announcer shouted in exultation as the Celtics scored.  Al made a face, and Sam tried another station as Al reclaimed his seat on the sofa.  Flamenco music poured from the speakers.


“My third, no, fourth wife loved that stuff,” Al mentioned.  “I never could stand it.”


Smiling, Sam moved the dial down another station.  This time a Jimmy Buffett song was on.  They listened to the musical interlude for a few bars, and then the vocals picked up again.


“Why don’t we get drunk and screw?”


“I think I can live without hearing those lyrics,” Al commented dryly, as Sam hurriedly fumbled to change stations again.  He passed over Pat Benatar screaming into a microphone and Merle Haggard crooning about being an Okie from Muskogee before finally settling on a jazz station.


“This time travel theory you were working on,” Al said while Sam settled into the small armchair, “it had something to do with a string, didn’t it?  Remind me what it was.  I was kinda . . . .”


“Drunk,” Sam gently supplied. 


Al’s jaw dropped. 


“Al, I knew.”


“Damn,” Al whispered after a few stunned seconds, “Bob was right.  I wasn’t hiding it well at all.”  He thought back to their first meeting.  “You knew all along, didn’t you?  I mean, even before I ‘doctored’ the coffee that afternoon.”


Sam nodded his affirmation.  “I could tell.” 


“I guess everyone could tell,” Al sighed, and Sam realized with a start that Shari had known about Al’s drinking as well.  Her cryptic comments about Al and the friend she’d been worried about suddenly made sense. 


Al was still talking, drawing Sam’s attention back.  “And if they didn’t know, they sure did once those rumors started flying.”  Panic and despair suddenly filled Al’s voice and the captain’s eyes started to go wild as worst-case scenarios flashed across his thoughts.  “Sam, what if the Committee interviews the general staff?  They’ve got the authority to do that.  I’m sunk.  If I bomb this hearing, the next step is a court-martial, I’m sure.”


Sam leaned forward and put a hand on Al’s shoulder.  “Al, relax.  Take a deep breath.”  Al reluctantly complied.  “And another.  Listen to me, Al.  I’m not going to let them toss you out, do you hear me?”


Still inhaling deeply to calm himself, Al quickly nodded in between breaths.


“I promise, Al, I’ll be there.  I’ll be a, a character witness or something for you.”


Al met Sam’s eyes to offer a thanks he couldn’t vocalize, took a final deep breath, and rolled his shoulders.  With the flair for changing the subject that he’d demonstrated so skillfully in the short time Sam had known him, Al said, “So refresh my memory about this string theory.”


“How much of it do you remember?” Sam asked.


“Enough to recall that it was just this side of fantasy,” Al said, chuckling.  He sobered as he tried to pull the conversation up from the depths of his mind.  It had been weeks since their talk, and most of the past month was a blur of repeated booze binges and one night stands.  “The string stood for the life of the time traveler?”


“Right!”  Sam beamed.  “A proper limitation is necessary for any feasible study.  Birth is one extreme.  Death would be the other.  Therefore, the potential travel period can not go past the traveler’s birth.  So for instance, it would be out of the question to witness the Roaring 20’s or Victorian period.”


“Unless the traveler had been born in one of those times.”


Sam nodded.  “Now if we reduce life to its smallest form, past the atomic level, we can enter the realm of quantum physics, and we become as much of a variable as an electron.  Let me show you.”  He dashed to the bookshelf and pulled two texts down as if he had just shelved them a couple of days ago, instead of the years it had been.  He flipped open the first, a biology text, to the cellular microbiology section.  Setting it on the couch beside Al, Sam opened the other book, a quantum physics volume, and found a correlating section.  “Do you see the connection?” he asked excitedly, pointing to the relevant paragraphs and diagrams.


Al studied it for a few minutes, tugging thoughtfully at his lower lip.  “I think so.  At least, I can see how you could theorize it on paper.”


“On paper, right.”  Sam jumped up again and ran into the bedroom, passing past the window without even glancing at the spectacular sunset visible through the glass.  He returned in virtual nanoseconds, waving an extremely battered spiral notebook.  Resuming his seat, he gingerly pressed the book into Al’s hands.  “Right there.  That notebook has the formulas Dr. LoNigro and I came up with.”


As if he were afraid the pages had grown as brittle as those in an antique book, Al carefully opened the water-stained cover and began reading the cryptic language of physics.  Sam laced his fingers together and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, as Al examined the equations.


After half an hour, Al rubbed his temples and shook his head.  “Sam, it’s been a long time since I looked at standard physics.  I think I see what you’re trying to do, and it certainly seems well supported.  But how does the string fit in?”


“It’s like a visualization of sorts, but it’s more than that.  I mean, two points have to be connected by a line, otherwise they’re just floating in space, right?  And if point A is your birth and point B is your death, that necessitates a line connecting the two.  A string.”


Al wrinkled his brow as he considered that.  “Okay, that makes sense, I guess.”


“Does it?  Because you have to accept that before the rest of it is even possible.”


“The rest of it?” echoed Al.  An image of a balled up shoelace in the palm of Sam’s hand flashed across his memory.  “You have to connect the ends somehow,” he said.


“Yes!  You have to tie the birth end to the death end so that you have a loop without beginning or ending.”


“And how do you pull that off?”


Sam quickly turned several pages in the notebook and pointed to the proper equation and explanation scrawled in his blocky print.  “The beauty of quantum physics,” he grinned.  “The impossible becomes possible.”


“Which makes it also possible,” Al said, comprehension dawning, “to crumple up the ball.”


“Exactly!  And since every point along the string represents a day of your life . . .”


“The days of your life touch each other, but they’re all mixed up.”


“Yes!”  Sam was almost crowing now.  Excitement built in his eyes, and Al got a sense that this was what really motivated Sam to strive for everything he’d achieved.  “So now you can move from one day in your lifetime to another, if you can just accelerate fast enough.  Time travel, Al, don’t you see?  Time travel!”


Al shook his head in amazement.  “It actually makes sense.”


“So you do think it can be done, then?”  Sam’s earnest face searched for affirmation.  “Dr. LoNigro told me I should talk to you about it.”


Theoretically, it looks like it can be done,” Al qualified.  “What did you have in mind for acceleration?”


Sam flinched slightly.  “A particle accelerator.  Adapted for human use, of course.”


“Of course,” snorted Al.  Then he considered the idea.  “Do you have any idea how large that accelerator would have to be to accommodate a person?”


“Well, yeah,” Sam said, somewhat abashed.  “It would definitely require a facility with a lot of acreage.”


“Yeah, it would,” Al said.  “Plus a lot of funding to be able to build the damn thing.  If it would even work.  And you’d need computers and failsafes and . . . .”


“Only one computer,” Sam broke in.  “One main computer, anyway.  A hybrid computer.”


“A what?  What the hell is a hybrid computer?”


“Not is.  What will be.  Uh, no one’s actually built one before.”


Al started laughing.  “Well, kid, if you’re gonna dream, ya might as well dream big!”



“Nooo,” Al moaned, thrashing his head from side to side on his pillow.  His eyes flew open and he stared at the ceiling, which was cast in foreboding shadows.  Al flattened one hand against the log wall to his right and clenched the bedsheets with the other, trying to ground himself in reality.  His breath hissed out from between gritted teeth, his chest frantically rising and falling.


Al risked a glance away from the ceiling to Sam’s cot.  The scientist was facing the other wall, quietly snoring, his shoulders gently rising and falling in a rhythm Al envied.


‘No need to wake Sam,’ Al thought.  He loosened his grip on the thin mattress and slowly sat up, keeping his right hand sliding against the wood as he moved.  In one quiet motion, he turned so that his back rested against the rounded texture of the solid wall.  He started hyperventilating again when the sensation translated itself into the thin, round bamboo of the tiger cage he’d called home for many years. 


Al slid forward until his feet made contact with the planks of the floor.  That was a sensation that didn’t have any correlation to Vietnam.  He ran his fingers through his hair a dozen times, as if he could rake away the night terrors.  Taking a deep breath, Al tried lying down again.  It only took a few minutes for him to decide that it wasn’t doing any good.


He got out of the bed this time, gooseflesh rolling up and down his arms, prickling his back beneath the thin cotton of his T-shirt.  Checking to make sure he hadn’t wakened Sam, he carefully stepped to the bedroom door and opened it.  He walked through to the living room, just as carefully closing the door behind him.  Chafing his upper arms, Al shuffled to the light switch on the wall, illuminating the living room in a warm glow.


It wasn’t bright enough.  Al switched on the table lamp, as well as a desk lamp.  Nodding at the artificial sunrise he’d just established, Al dropped into what had become his customary place on the couch.  He sat there in a near attention posture, staring blankly at the walls.  However, he wasn’t seeing the rough bark of the log construction or the pictures that Dr. LoNigro considered art.  The visions of the prison camp played out again and again, like an instant replay of a killer tackle on Monday Night Football.  And with each repeat, Al’s body grew more and more tense, until he was struggling to fill his lungs with air.


He shook his head and pulled himself back to the silent room.  “I’m going nuts,” he murmured.  Al took a deep breath and tried to get himself to relax.  “It was just a dream, Calavicci, that’s all.”  Isn’t that what the kid had said every time he’d bolted awake?  Why was it that he couldn’t convince himself of it as easily?


Al surveyed the room.  Checking for monsters under the bed, are we?’


He pressed clenched fists against his temples to drive the damning voice away.  Frantically, he made another sweep of the room.  A small pad in the midst of the clutter on LoNigro’s desk stood out as if a spotlight focused attention there. Al stood and walked to the desk.  Once there, he fingered the corner of the notepad.  Was it possible that writing the nightmares down could help? 


Like an automaton, Al picked up the tablet and robotically reached in the desk for a pen.  Too afraid to think, he returned to the couch and sat Indian style on the lumpy cushion.  Al clicked the pen and poised the ballpoint over the perfect lines of the steno pad.


“How do I start this?”  Once upon a time, a lieutenant named Calavicci spent six years in hell; yeah, right.’  Al closed his eyes and sighed.  When his lids fluttered open again, words began to flow.  He scrawled the details that flashed across his mind onto the pad with a speed that surprised him.  After he’d filled half the page with torturous facts, Al stopped writing.  He ripped the page out and crumpled it in his hand.


“This was a dumb idea.  Why did I think it could work?”  Al tossed the paper ball into a corner of the room.  Writing wasn’t removing the memory.  If anything, it was bringing more to the forefront of his thoughts, as his brain hurried to supply supplemental data to the atrocities he’d poured out.


Al dropped the notebook and pen onto the end table.  He shivered while the memories continued their onslaught.  Al folded his arms and chewed his lip, as aware of the vodka ensconced within the table’s drawer as he was of the pounding of his heartbeat.  Aware of the promised forgetfulness it held.


He leapt from the couch and fled for the kitchen, turning on every light in there as well.  He grabbed a glass from the stack of clean dishes they hadn’t gotten around to putting away and filled it with cold tap water.  He drained the glass and refilled it, turning to set it on the table.


Al’s fresh cigars were in the bedroom, and he didn’t want to risk disturbing Sam in a search for tobacco.  He scanned the kitchen, thinking that he’d left the cigar he’d been smoking earlier that day in the room somewhere.  Yes, the ashtray he’d used was on a corner of the countertop, and the remainder of his stogie perched on the edge, right where he’d laid it after extinguishing it.  He picked up the cigar and lit it, closing his eyes as he pulled deeply.  He opened his eyes long enough to claim the ashtray.


Still puffing, Al sat down at the table and placed the ashtray within easy reach.  Rather than drink the glass of water, he played with it.  He dipped his index finger into the water, and then ran it around the rim of the glass, making it sing.  He continued to idly amuse himself in this way, until the encroaching nightmare reared its ugly head again.


As the sounds began to fill his ears, Al mashed his cigar into the ashtray and jumped from the chair.  His sudden motion almost knocked it to the floor, but he managed to whirl and grab it before its crash could fill the entire cabin.  Al started to pace around the kitchen, the regularity of his motion bringing with it some vague sense of calmness and rightness.  A very vague sense, but he was more than willing to take what he could get.  Anything to keep the voices and memories at bay.


As the minutes ticked by, the pacing grew less and less effective.  The cries of his fellow captives came at him from the left; the harsh voices yelling curses and orders at them in Vietnamese flew from the right.  Al grabbed his hair within his own tight fists, trying to keep a desperate grasp on the present.  And still he paced, back and forth across the tiny kitchen, which grew smaller by the moment.


Letting a short cry of anguish free, Al ran back into the living room.  Merciful silence greeted him.  He dropped tense shoulders and allowed himself to breathe.


“Al, where Mommy go?”


‘Oh, God, no.  Not Trudy again.  Dammit, don’t use her.’


‘Why not?’


Al shook his head and clapped his hands over his ears.  “I am not going to do this,” he spat out, barely above a whisper. 


‘That’s right.  You’re not going to make it through life sober.’ 


Al kept his hands over his ears, even though it was pointless.  He resumed his pacing.  Back and forth in front of the sofa he went in a steady pattern.  Four steps and turn.  Four steps and turn. 




Despite himself, Al complied.  He started shaking down to his toes as he stood in front of the end table.


‘Your answers are all in there.  You want peace, it’s within that drawer.’


“No,” Al whispered.  Begging.  Pleading.  Struggling.  His hand stretched toward the small knob.


Abruptly, he turned on his heel and paced in the other direction.  But the pattern of his pace brought him right back to the table again.  The booze seemed to call out to him now, whispering his name over and over again until he thought he would scream.


“I’m going crazy.”


‘You will go crazy if you don’t get a drink.’ 


Al slowly pulled the drawer open.  The light glistened off the crystal white of the liquor bottle.  Al just stood and stared, tremors racking his body.  He couldn’t tell if they were lingering withdrawal symptoms, holdovers from the nightmare, or his own reaction to the voices that just wouldn’t go away. 


‘Pick it up.  Pick it up and I’ll leave you alone.’


“No.  Please.”  Tears welled up in Al’s eyes.  “You’ve come too far to go back to square one.”  Sam’s voice suddenly broke into Al’s thoughts.


The demon voice was ready with an answer.  How far have you come, really?  Shakes and shivers, and you still have the nightmares.  Is this really working?’


Al reached into the drawer and lifted the bottle free.  He cradled it between his palms, staring at the label.  Craving pulled at him, twisting his stomach and knotting his intestines.  It wasn’t the taste he longed for--wasn’t even the buzz he wanted.  It was the blessed oblivion that the liquor offered that called to him.  His hands resumed the shaking that he thought he’d finally been freed of.  The words on the label became black smears before his eyes, and the voice continued its vigilant onslaught against his resolve.


‘It’s the only answer, Albert, the only way.’ 


Al stared down at the bottle, the vodka sloshing within since his hands wouldn’t stop shaking.  He licked his lips and shifted the bottle to one hand.


‘That’s right.  Go ahead.’ 


NO!!!!!!  Al drew back his arm and pitched the bottle of vodka against the far wall.  It exploded on impact, spraying shards of glass all over the floor.  Al’s knees turned to jelly, and he sank to the floor.  He buried his face in his hands and sat there, trembling.


“What the--?  Al!  Al, are you all right?”  Sam stood in the doorway, squinting against the bright light that assaulted his recently-opened eyes.  He registered Al’s crumpled, shivering form, and was by his side in two seconds.


“Al?  What happened?”  Sam knelt and gripped Al’s shoulders.  For once, Al didn’t struggle at the sudden contact.  In fact, he reached up to cover Sam’s hand with his own, holding on tightly.


Al sat immobile on the floor, blinking in amazement at the sudden silence within his head.  “I think I just won a battle,” he quietly answered.



Friday, April 26, 1985


“Okay, tell me again how this relates to the holography at Starbright,” Al pressed, rubbing his temples. 


They’d been going over Sam’s ideas for three hours straight.  While Al had gotten more familiar with the string theory over the last couple of days, they still didn’t have enough relevant material to justify their trip to the Project administration.  Sam found himself on the receiving end of Al’s role as a devil’s advocate.  The captain simultaneously shot down their brainstorming efforts even as he offered suggestions of his own.


“It’s going to end up working the other way,” Sam said, sinking back into the cushions of his chair.  His eyes slid downward in weariness at rehashing the argument.  “I think holography can play an important part in enacting the string theory.”


“I know that, Sam,” Al countered, “but at least on paper, you have to offer something new to Starbright.  Where’d you put that proposal down at?”


Sam retrieved the folder from beneath the scattered mess of papers on the floor and passed it over as he let out a long-suffering sigh.  “I thought you already shot down everything I suggested from that.”


Al leafed through the pages, not even bothering to look up.  “You think I’m bein’ tough?  Jansen and the others may have given their approval for this trip, but they’re not the ones that’re gonna be looking for results!  You need to be ready for arguments, Sam!”


“Well, aren’t you going to be defending our results, too?”


Now Al looked up.  “Depends on how my hearing goes.  I may be busy packing my bags.  Permanently.”  He started turning pages again.  Before Sam could comment, Al jabbed his finger against a paragraph of the proposal.  “Now what about this here?  What did Jansen say about this idea?”


Sam leaned over to read the paragraph in question.  “The holography labs lack sufficient technological support to fully render the communication goals accessible,” he read aloud after skimming the preliminaries.  “He agreed with me.”


“Okay,” Al said.  “That’s an angle we’ll work on.”  He slowly stood and picked his way through the paper flood they’d created.  Once he reached a clear path, he began pacing, idly nibbling at his thumb’s knuckle while he thought.    “How’s the holography coming, anyway?”


Sam shrugged.  “The quality’s improving, but not to the point of allowing interaction yet.  I’m not even sure the holograms we’re producing now are going to be capable of producing acceptable movement.”


“Reason?”  Al quickened his pace, tapping his thumbnail against his teeth now.


“Computer limitations?”


Al whirled to face Sam.  “You can’t be unsure of yourself.  They’ll eat you alive if you show any weakness.  Remember, you’re going to be delivering this to the Committee.  You’ve got to be confident, even if you don’t feel that way.”  He sighed, aware that he should apply his advice to his own hearing with the Committee.


Sam rubbed his forehead.  Al’s constant challenging was giving him a headache.  “The computers don’t have enough capacity to handle the rapid change in variables that interactive holography requires.”


“Better,” Al nodded.  “And what was your recommendation in the proposal?  To reprogram the computer.  Aren’t you guys doing that already?”


“No.  We’re refining the holography program itself,” Sam explained.  “I think the whole operating system needs to be overhauled.  Otherwise we’re just taping up an earthquake fault.”


“What about that hybrid computer of yours?”


“Al, you can’t be serious.”


“Not about actually building the thing, no.  But some of the principles in the way it’s supposed to work...”


Sam cut in.  “Could be used to refine the communications system we’re working on at Starbright.”  He jumped up as well, unable to process the thoughts that raced through his mind while seated.  “Obviously the neurological aspects won’t serve any purpose.  But the quanta…”  Sam started a pace of his own, his mind working faster than he could vocalize.  When he reached a conclusion four minutes later, he stopped in his path and glared at Al.  “I suggested that an hour ago.”


He should have known better than to think that he could intimidate Al Calavicci.  The captain looked askance at him, arms folded.  “You tossed out a half-assed idea about the computer.  And it was nothing more than what you said in the proposal.”


“But I was on the right track,” Sam argued.


Al wasn’t going to back down.  “The right track isn’t good enough for the Committee, Sam.  You have to spell it out for them.  Explain it like you’re trying to teach grade school, but fill it with enough jargon that they feel important.  They’re nothing but a bunch of bureaucrats with four working brain cells in the whole lot.  That means they’ve got the power to say yes or no without having to understand why.”


“How did they get to be in charge if they don’t really know what we’re doing?” Sam frowned.  He dropped into his chair again.  “What gives them the right to make all the decisions?”


“That’s just the way the game is played, Sam.”


Sam shook his head.  “Well, it doesn’t make any sense to me.”


Al smiled bemusedly at the young scientist.  “Be glad you don’t understand it.  Hopefully you’ll never have to.”


Saturday, April 27, 1985


Sam stared out the cabin’s windows at the bright blue sky.  Cheery white puffs of cloud dotted the expanse.  It seemed appropriate that the sky reflected the ground Sam felt they’d covered over the past several days.  Not only had they made considerable headway on the proposal Sam had used as an excuse to get Al away from the Project, but they’d gotten more theorizing done on the string theory than Sam would have imagined possible.  Al grew more relaxed with each passing day.  With the exception of the moments following a nightmare, Al’s shaking had finally stopped.  Sam thought that it might be safe to say that they’d both survived the withdrawal period.


From the rear of the cabin, he could still hear the rushing water of Al’s shower and the faint sound of the radio Al had taken into the bathroom.  He’d been in there for a long time now.  Sam checked his watch, growing concerned. 


Al’s nightmares hadn’t leveled off.  Sam was sure of that; he’d slept lightly ever since the night Al had thrown the vodka against the wall.  Never letting on to the captain that he wasn’t sleeping, Sam kept himself at the ready.  Al bolted awake on a regular basis during the night, and the level of panic evident in his breathing broke Sam’s heart every time.  Sometimes Al would get up and leave the bedroom for a while before returning.  Other times he’d lie still in the bed and whisper to himself.  Sam could never quite make out what Al said, but whatever it was, it seemed to help because his breathing gradually steadied out minutes later and gentle snoring soon followed--only to be interrupted again after a few short hours.


Still, he wasn’t convinced Al was actually dealing with the nightmares.  Even though the captain wasn’t trying to drown them out with alcohol any longer--a fact Sam was elated about, to be sure-- Sam had a feeling that Al was still trying to block the painful images away, shoving them into the closets of his mind as if they were last season’s clothes.  But everything comes back into fashion,’ Sam thought.  Old clothes and old memories.  It all comes back.’


He looked towards the bathroom door.  Al was still in the shower.  Sam thought about the razor he’d left on the sink, and felt his insides knot up.  He wouldn’t.  He just wouldn’t.’  He’d just about convinced himself to check on Al, and took two steps toward the bathroom, when he heard the gravelly voice singing loudly and off-key to the radio’s accompaniment. 


Sam’s shoulders physically drooped with relief.  He surveyed the cabin, chuckling to himself at how similar the tornado of paperwork was to the days he’d spent here with Dr. LoNigro, working on the same theories.  Unfortunately, they weren’t going to be able to leave the mess waiting for the next visit, as he and the professor had been wont to do from time to time.  Their flight back to New Mexico left in the morning.  Sam let out a small sigh and began collecting the papers.  Neither he nor Al were particularly messy people--far from it, in fact, so Sam was surprised at how much of the floor was covered by the folders and loose papers.


It only took him a few minutes to gather all the scattered papers into a neat pile.  Then he tackled picking up all the balled up scraps they’d tossed into the corner.  One small crumpled sheet caught his eye.  Unlike the bright yellow of the legal pads they’d been using during all their discussions of Sam’s theories, this page was pale blue.  Sam let the yellow balls fall to the floor and took hold of the blue paper.  He smoothed it open on his knee and started to read the handwritten lines.


‘I wish just once I could wake up without having to convince myself I’m not in ‘Nam anymore.  Sgt. Cao isn’t waiting to work me over in another of his so-called games.’ 




Al’s voice interrupted him, and Sam crumpled the paper again, shoving it into his pocket before scooping up the paper balls he’d dropped.  “Just cleaning up.”  He stood with his arms loaded and turned to face Al.  The captain, wearing a blue terrycloth robe, padded barefoot across the wooden floor.  Sam added, “I didn’t hear you get out of the shower.”


“Were you listening for it?”  Al pushed his damp hair off of his forehead and grinned at Sam.


“Kind of,” Sam responded, walking to the small wastebasket near the desk and dropping the crumpled papers within it.  “I want to see if the stitches are ready to come out after all.”


“You and me both.”  Al nodded at the glistening black surgical thread criss-crossing the thin lines on his wrists.  “I was hoping you would’ve taken them out yesterday.”  He shrugged and headed for the bedroom.  “Just let me get dressed first, okay?”


Sam nodded.  “I have to wash my hands, anyway.”  He crossed past Al and headed into the bathroom.  After he heard Al close the bedroom door, Sam stuffed his hand into his pocket and pulled the twisted paper out again.  He held the paper and stared at it, wondering if it was really invading Al’s privacy to read it.  He considered the mass of paper where he’d found the small page.  Al had to have written it in the past couple of nights, because they’d only begun tossing paper across the room then.  It hadn’t been there when they’d cleaned up the vodka bottle.


‘No, it hadn’t, but another one had.’  Sam’s photographic memory recalled a small blue scrap Al had carefully palmed while picking up the shards of glass.  He hadn’t made much notice of it at the time, but now he held its twin within his hand.


Al wasn’t going to open up to him about Vietnam again, Sam knew.  His own naïveté had seen to that earlier in the week.  And yet, he felt he owed it to the captain to support him and to understand what it was that he dealt with--whether Al was aware of it or not.  Sam quickly smoothed the paper open again before he could argue himself out of it.


‘Another of the damn sessions won’t leave me alone tonight.  I guess it’s halfway through the time, but who could tell exactly when anything was back then.  Hank was still alive and Cao had just finished with him and it was my turn next.  I’d forgotten how sick I’d been then and how I couldn’t even walk.  Cao used that as an excuse to let his goons whip me without asking the questions he knew I wouldn’t answer anyway.  Why do I keep trying this----‘


Sam slowly hid the words within the crumpled folds of the paper, his fist closing around the page as if he could do the same to the throat of the VC sergeant Al had written about.  He shoved the page within his pocket again and turned to run the water in the sink.  He scrubbed his hands not only to sterilize them for checking Al’s wounds, but also as if he could scrub away the atrocities Al couldn’t even bring himself to write down.  Sam looked into the mirror above the sink, and the moisture in his eyes blurred his reflection.  He ran a sleeve across his face before leaving the bathroom.


Al was waiting for him on the couch with his sleeves rolled up and his eyes cast down at the exposed wounds. 


“I, uh, need the medikit,” Sam hedged.  It was an accurate statement, but it also gave him the precious moments he needed to compose himself.  He knelt by his suitcase for several seconds, pretending to search for the kit, but in reality taking calming breaths to keep the anger and yes, even the pity Al so hated, from displaying themselves.  Once his emotions settled out, Sam returned to the living room with the medikit in hand.


Sam sat next to Al on the couch and slipped rubber gloves on his hands.  He probed the edges of the wounds and directed Al to gently move his wrists.  Al complied and, for the first time, kept a constant watch on Sam’s face.  No doubt he was judging Sam’s expressions to determine the chances of being freed of the black stitches.


“I think they’re ready to come out,” Sam nodded.  He opened the kit and removed a small pair of scissors.  As Al stared intently at the wounds, Sam carefully snipped the surgical thread and freed the remnants from his skin.  Al cringed only slightly at the sensation each time.


Al examined his wrists as soon as Sam finished.  The deep slashes he’d caused were nothing more than a slender red line glistening with the sheen of fragile scar tissue forming beneath the deceptively minor scabbing.  A row of tiny dots surrounded each line above and below.  The small punctures appeared very angry and swollen, but Sam assured him they’d quickly fade.


“You’re quite the seamstress,” Al commented.  “I expected it to look much worse.”


“We need to keep them bandaged,” Sam said, not willing to express gratitude at his suture job--he wished it hadn’t been necessary.  “You’re not healed all the way yet, and there’s 48 hours to go before the hearing, if you still want to try to go without the bandages.”


“If I can.”  Al still focused on his wrists.  Now that the damage wasn’t shielded by the protective stitches, he was aware of how much he’d healed, and how much healing he still had before him.  Too much stress applied in any direction, and the wound would split its tenuous seal.


Understanding, Sam answered, “If you keep them covered and medicated today and tomorrow, it’s a possibility.”


“It’s cutting it pretty close, isn’t it?” Al asked, finally tearing his eyes away from his wounds.  He offered his wrists to Sam, who began tending to them.


“Yeah,” Sam nodded.  He reinforced the wounds with slender adhesive strips before taping the protective gauze pads into place.  “But you’ve been healing swiftly so far, and I don’t see any reason why you won’t keep healing at that rate.”


“Nothing like a deadline for motivation,” chuckled Al.  He rolled down his cuffs and buttoned them while Sam started cleaning up the supplies.  “By the way, Sam, I don’t think I thanked you for--well, for everything.”


Sam paused in snapping the gloves off.


“I still don’t know why you even gave a damn,” Al said, suddenly lowering his eyes and fiddling with his cuff buttons as if to perfect the angle at which they protruded from the fabric, “but--I appreciate it more than I can say.  And no matter what happens on Monday, thank you.”  He cleared his throat and tugged lightly at the waist of his shirt.  “So, I guess I’ll go scare up some breakfast, all right?”  Al was up and in the kitchen before Sam could respond.


Sam remained on the couch, stunned in the captain’s wake and processing the heartfelt thanks so quickly offered. 


“You’re welcome,” he said under his breath as he rose to throw the medical trash into the wastebasket.  That done, he picked the blue paper from his pocket and buried it deep within the trash, where Al had intended for the memory to end up. 


Al wondered why he kept trying.  Sam hoped he wouldn’t ever stop.  It seemed to have helped, at least to some degree.  It was probably purging for Al to be able to physically discard the memory.


He took a deep breath and smelled something burning.  That was odd.  If anything had burned during the week, it was when Sam took a turn at KP.


“Need any help?” Sam called out, heading into the kitchen after his friend.


Al quickly shouted back, “No, I’ve got it under control.”


Sam was already across the threshhold.  Al jumped guiltily, and shoved something into the sink.




He didn’t have to say anything else.  Al frowned, eyes ablaze at the implications of Sam’s tone.


“I haven’t been drinking anything.”


“What are you hiding in the sink, then?  Why else would you let something burn?”  Sam glanced around the kitchen and stopped, realizing that Al hadn’t set anything to cooking yet.  “Al, what’s going on?”




“Don’t give me that.  Especially not after the last week.”  Sam reached a hand out, palm up.  “Al, let me help.”


“There’s nothing to help,” Al said.  “I was just . . . . cleaning some stuff out.”


Sam took a step forward, and Al instinctively backed away to match.  Al’s eyes immediately darted toward the sink for a split second before locking back onto Sam as if he were keeping his sights on an enemy.  Ignoring the ache of being classified an enemy at the moment, Sam walked to the sink and looked down into it.


The remnants of several small blue pages smoldered in the damp sink.


“Al?”  Confusion and shame contorted Sam’s brow.


Al shrugged and waved his left hand back and forth in the air.  “A funeral pyre.  That’s all it is.”


“I thought--” Sam flushed to the roots of his hair and stared at his shoes.


“Yes, you made it pretty clear what you thought.”  There was a bit of justifiable harshness in Al’s voice.  Then, just as quickly, the captain’s tone softened.  “Thanks for the concern, though.”


Hesitantly, he raised his eyes to meet Al’s.  The dark brown eyes glistened with emotion and a faint smile split the worn face.


Sam gave a weak sheepish grin of his own.  “I’ll, uh, I’ll finish getting everything together in the living room,” he stammered out, backing toward the door.


“Thanks,” Al murmured.  He walked back to the sink and picked up a lighter to finish symbolically incinerating the pain of his past.





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