April 24, 1985
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.
that, you damn voice.”
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.
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.
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
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.
Sam quickly sat up. As soon
as he saw Al, he rubbed his face to clear it.
didn’t go back to bed last night,” Al said in a kind voice.
uh, I guess I fell asleep here.”
guess you did.” Al smiled
and laughed. “I don’t
imagine you slept too well there.”
shrugged, rolling a crick out of his neck.
“Were you able to get any sleep?”
yeah, I was.”
were?” Sam sat up
straighter. “Then it did
Al wasn’t ready to commit to anything more than that.
“You want some breakfast?” he asked, getting up to search the
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.
make some fresh coffee, too,” Al laughed.
thanked him and stretched in the chair, groaning as stiff muscles lodged
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.
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
I’ve got it. Go take your
shower and I should have something that’s edible, hopefully, when
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.”
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.
seems . . . I mean . . . you said you slept well, last night, right?”
slept,” Al said. “I
don’t know if I’d qualify it as sleeping well yet.”
He shook his head. “Go
maybe the important thing is letting it out.
Do you think writing it down, like in a journal, would help?”
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.
guess I could give it a try,” Al finally said, slowly.
“It sure as hell can’t make things worse.”
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.
go take that shower now,” Sam said.
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
this a little too much food for just a few days?” asked Al as Sam
dropped another armload of supplies into the cart.
just laughed and looked around the aisle for the next items on his mental
mean, you’ve got enough here to survive a nuclear holocaust.”
sacks of flour joined the growing pile.
LoNigro isn’t going to know what to do with all this food.”
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.
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.
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?”
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.”
Sam swapped the containers and put the cardboard package in the
cart. “I didn’t realize
you cared about the environment.”
know, it’s probably hard to believe that I care about anything.”
Sarcasm dripped from Al’s words.
reacted as if he’d been slapped. “That
isn’t what I meant,” he softly said.
He turned to get the milk.
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.
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
or wheat?” Sam asked, a loaf of each in his hands. His eyes said ‘It’s
okay. Apology accepted.’
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
knew you had a special person in there,’ Sam thought. ‘Hold
on to him, Al, and don’t let him slip into hiding again.’
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.
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.
to hear it.” Al’s eyes
flashed downward toward his wrists. “How
do you think they’ll be by Monday?”
contemplated it. “If you
keep healing like this, I think it might be safe for you to go to the
hearing without bandages.”
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?”
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.
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.
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.
I found the vodka last night.”
Sam froze in place and faced Al.
found it last night,” Al repeated.
“Pretty much the same way you did, only I was looking for the
didn’t know that was in there when I asked you to look through the
drawer, Al, I swear.”
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
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.
didn’t drink any of it, did you?”
Sam still looked dubious. “No!
It was half gone when I found it.”
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?”
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.
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
closed his eyes and nodded. He
opened them to connect with Sam’s earnest, worried hazel eyes.
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.
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.
third, no, fourth wife loved that stuff,” Al mentioned.
“I never could stand it.”
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.
don’t we get drunk and screw?”
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.
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 . . . .”
Sam gently supplied.
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.”
nodded his affirmation. “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.
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.”
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?”
inhaling deeply to calm himself, Al quickly nodded in between breaths.
promise, Al, I’ll be there. I’ll
be a, a character witness or something for you.”
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.”
much of it do you remember?” Sam asked.
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?”
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.”
the traveler had been born in one of those times.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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?”
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.
wrinkled his brow as he considered that.
“Okay, that makes sense, I guess.”
it? Because you have to
accept that before the rest of it is even possible.”
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.
You have to tie the birth end to the death end so that you have a
loop without beginning or ending.”
how do you pull that off?”
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.”
makes it also possible,” Al said, comprehension dawning, “to crumple
up the ball.”
And since every point along the string represents a day of your
life . . .”
days of your life touch each other, but they’re all mixed up.”
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?
shook his head in amazement. “It
actually makes sense.”
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.”
it looks like it can be done,” Al qualified.
“What did you have in mind for acceleration?”
flinched slightly. “A
particle accelerator. Adapted
for human use, of course.”
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?”
yeah,” Sam said, somewhat abashed.
“It would definitely require a facility with a lot of acreage.”
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 . . . .”
one computer,” Sam broke in. “One
main computer, anyway. A
what? What the hell is a
What will be. Uh, no
one’s actually built one before.”
started laughing. “Well,
kid, if you’re gonna dream, ya might as well dream big!”
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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?
surveyed the room. ‘Checking for monsters under the
bed, are we?’
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
where Mommy go?”
God, no. Not Trudy again. Dammit, don’t use her.’
shook his head and clapped his hands over his ears. “I am not going to do this,” he spat out, barely above a
right. You’re not going to
make it through life sober.’
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.
himself, Al complied. He
started shaking down to his toes as he stood in front of the end table.
answers are all in there. You
want peace, it’s within that drawer.’
Al whispered. Begging.
His hand stretched toward the small knob.
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.
go crazy if you don’t get a drink.’
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.
up. Pick it up and I’ll
leave you alone.’
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.
demon voice was ready with an answer.
far have you come, really? Shakes
and shivers, and you still have the nightmares.
Is this really working?’
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.
the only answer, Albert, the only way.’
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.
right. Go ahead.’
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.
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
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
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.
April 26, 1985
tell me again how this relates to the holography at Starbright,” Al
pressed, rubbing his temples.
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.
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.”
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?”
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
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!”
aren’t you going to be defending our results, too?”
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?”
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.”
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?”
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.”
Al quickened his pace, tapping his thumbnail against his teeth now.
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.
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.”
Al nodded. “And what was
your recommendation in the proposal?
To reprogram the computer. Aren’t
you guys doing that already?”
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.”
about that hybrid computer of yours?”
you can’t be serious.”
about actually building the thing, no.
But some of the principles in the way it’s supposed to work...”
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
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.”
I was on the right track,” Sam argued.
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
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?”
just the way the game is played, Sam.”
shook his head. “Well, it
doesn’t make any sense to me.”
smiled bemusedly at the young scientist.
“Be glad you don’t understand it.
Hopefully you’ll never have to.”
April 27, 1985
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
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.
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
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
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
wouldn’t. He just
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.
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.
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
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.’
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.”
you listening for it?” Al
pushed his damp hair off of his forehead and grinned at Sam.
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
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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----‘
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.
was waiting for him on the couch with his sleeves rolled up and his eyes
cast down at the exposed wounds.
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.
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.
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.
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.
quite the seamstress,” Al commented.
“I expected it to look much worse.”
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
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.
Sam answered, “If you keep them covered and medicated today and
tomorrow, it’s a possibility.”
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.
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.”
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.”
paused in snapping the gloves off.
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.
remained on the couch, stunned in the captain’s wake and processing the
heartfelt thanks so quickly offered.
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.
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
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.
any help?” Sam called out, heading into the kitchen after his friend.
quickly shouted back, “No, I’ve got it under control.”
was already across the threshhold. Al
jumped guiltily, and shoved something into the sink.
didn’t have to say anything else. Al
frowned, eyes ablaze at the implications of Sam’s tone.
haven’t been drinking anything.”
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?”
give me that. Especially not
after the last week.” Sam
reached a hand out, palm up. “Al,
let me help.”
nothing to help,” Al said. “I
was just . . . . cleaning some stuff out.”
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.
remnants of several small blue pages smoldered in the damp sink.
Confusion and shame contorted Sam’s brow.
shrugged and waved his left hand back and forth in the air.
“A funeral pyre. That’s all it is.”
thought--” Sam flushed to the roots of his hair and stared at his shoes.
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.”
he raised his eyes to meet Al’s. The
dark brown eyes glistened with emotion and a faint smile split the worn
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.
Al murmured. He walked back to the sink and picked up a lighter to finish
symbolically incinerating the pain of his past.