Episode 1236
For The Sake Of The Call Part 2

April 25-26,2004

Somewhere in Sudan, Africa


Sam has leaped into the life of Howie Lockwood for the second time.  Just his act of Leaping in seems to have accomplished his mission even while landing him face to face with a furious man in military fatigues and with an AK-47 in his hands. Sam is beaten, flogged and intimidated, and when Al shows up, he learns that he has a second mission to accomplish.  Even though he saved Howie Lockwood’s life just by leaping into him again, when Sam eventually leaps out, the Visitor is still going to die, but there’s a catch—in any attempt to save the Visitor’s life, Sam cannot compromise the missionary’s faith.  This leap also turns out to be a difficult one for Al to come to terms with.

Written By:

C. E. Krawiec and Jennifer Rowland

Theorizing that one could time-travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett led an elite group of scientists into the desert to develop a top-secret project known as Quantum Leap.  Pressured to prove his theories or lose funding, Dr. Beckett prematurely stepped into the Project Accelerator…and vanished.


He awoke to find himself in the past, suffering from partial amnesia and facing a mirror image that was not his own.  Fortunately, contact with his own time was maintained through brainwave transmissions with Al, the Project Observer, who appeared in the form of a hologram that only Dr. Beckett can see and hear.


As evil do their best to stop Dr. Beckett’s journey, his children, Dr. Samantha Josephine Fulton and Stephen Beckett, continuously strive to retrieve their time-lost father and bring him home permanently.  Despite returning home several times over the last decade, Dr. Beckett has remained lost in the time stream…his final fate no longer certain.


Trapped in the past and driven by an unknown force, Dr. Beckett struggles to accept his destiny as he continues to find himself leaping from life to life, putting things right that once went wrong with the hopes that his next leap…will be the final leap home.




In Part I, Sam has leaped into the life of Howie Lockwood for the second time.  Just his act of Leaping in seems to have accomplished his mission even while landing him face to face with a furious man in military fatigues and with an AK-47 in his hands. Sam is beaten, flogged and intimidated, and when Al shows up, he learns that he has a second mission to accomplish.  Even though he saved Howie Lockwood’s life just by leaping into him again, when he eventually leaps out, the Visitor is still going to die, but there’s a catch.  What’s the catch?  The catch is that the Visitor is aware of his impending death, and while Al is dealing with what Sam is going through, he’s also having a hard time coming to terms with the Visitor’s acceptance of his approaching death.



What kind of joy is this, that counts it a blessing to suffer?
What kind of joy is this, that gives the prisoner his song?
What kind of joy could stare death in the face, and see it as sweet victory?
This is the joy of a soul that's forgiven and free.
--Steven Curtis Chapman, "What Kind of Joy"





Project Quantum Leap

Stallion's Gate, New Mexico

Sunday, May 20, 2007

1107 hours


Al blinked groggily and stared up at the ceiling.  He turned his head to the side and saw Howie sitting in a chair at his bedside.


"I think things are a little backwards here," Al said.


Howie threw his head back and laughed.  "Can I help it if you usurped my bed?"


Grinning, Al sat up and stretched before rising.  "Well, you better get back in it before the docs come in and skin me alive."


"Too late," Howie grinned, but complied all the same.  "Your wife came in about ten minutes ago."


"Oh great," muttered Al.  "I'll probably get reamed out later."


"I don't think so.  She seemed pretty pleased, actually."  Howie arranged himself in the bed, punching the pillow behind his sore back several times before settling against it.  He waited until Al sat down in the chair he'd just vacated before he casually asked, "When does it happen?"


Al played stupid for a moment.  "What are you talking about?"


"I know I'm going to die in Sudan," Howie said simply.  "When does it happen?"


If the ceiling had caved in on top of them at that precise moment, Al was positive that he wouldn't have been more startled than he was right now. In spite of Howie's calm demeanor and forthright manner of asking, he didn't answer immediately.  When he did, he remained cagey a moment longer. "What makes you think that?" he asked, but the look on the younger man's face, and even more that in his eyes, told him that he was wasting his breath.  Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, he closed his eyes a moment then lifted his head and met Howie Lockwood's gaze. They were among the hardest words Al Calavicci had ever had to say, bar none.


It didn't make it any easier when Howie chose to get up and come over to kneel down in front of him and ask, "When, Al?"


Swallowing a couple of times, Al finally got the words out, forcing himself to look into those calm green eyes.  "al-Haatim is going to make an example of you," he said, hesitated then finished. "He's going to execute you tomorrow morning. He's going to make your people watch it."


Howie sat thoughtfully for several long moments, then looked up at Al from his place kneeling before him.  "He... always likes a show," Howie said slowly.  He reached for Al's hands and gripped them meaningfully.  "Thank you for telling me."


Al silently nodded, for once not ashamed of the tears filling his eyes.  "We're still trying to figure out a way for Sam to change things, though."


Howie smiled ruefully, "He won't be able to."


‘In for a penny, in for a pound,’ thought Al, as he said, "He already has."


Howie looked up, surprised at that, and rose to sit on the edge of the bed, not releasing Al's hands though.  "What do you mean?"


Al looked down at their joined hands and cleared his throat before looking at Howie.  "You said you were surprised you hadn't already been killed.  Thing is, the first time around you and your congregation were all killed.  But now…”


Howie finished the thought for him, nodding, “When Sam switched places with me, he saved my life.”


"And the lives of most of your congregation."


Howie considered that information silently before squeezing Al's hands and saying, "When you see Sam again, tell him I said thanks."


Al nodded.  "I will, but like I said, we're still working on finding a way...."


"Like I told you before, Al," Howie reminded him, "you won't.”  The trademark Howie Lockwood grin slid into place.  "Besides, one good turn deserves another, don't you think?"


"And that means... what?" Slowly Al was regaining control of himself in this difficult situation. It didn't help any when Howie quoted another Bible verse to him.  It seemed so... accepting, so... final.


"Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend," Howie said.  "I may not have met Sam, face to face, but I still consider him a friend.  Almost as good a friend as you, Al."


Al now found himself saying something he normally wouldn't, but the circumstances warranted it.


"Howie..." Al paused, reaching to grip the young man's shoulder.  "Beth and I never had a son.  But if we had, I’d have been proud if he had turned out like you."


As Al spoke, tears spilled down Howie’s cheeks, and he grabbed the older man in a hug, declaring, “I love you, Al.”


Neither man knew how long the embrace lasted but at least for one of them, it ended far too soon.  Al wanted to hold onto Howie Lockwood and protect him as much as he would any of his children.  Yet the resolution he saw in Howie's eyes when at last they separated told him that even were it possible, there was nothing that would sway the young man from the destiny that both knew awaited him.


Getting up from the bed, Howie walked over to the table and looked down at the Bible, thought a moment and said without looking back, "Al, would you do me a favor?"


Stuffing the handkerchief he’d just used into one of his pockets, Al sniffed lightly and got up from the bed to cross the room to stand beside the Visitor. Looking up at Howie he said, "Name it."


"You sure?" Howie asked.  He grinned lightly when Al replied, "Whatever it is, I'll make it happen. You can take that to the bank." Howie waited a moment then said, "I'd like to write a letter to my family.  Would you see that they get it... later?"


"Just make sure you write legibly," was all Al said.  He would have said more, but at that moment the door into the Waiting Room opened and Beth stepped in but didn't make a move to approach them.  Her husband read her eyes without hesitation.  "I'll be there in a minute," he told her then turned back to Howie.  His voice was steadier than he would have believed possible given everything that had been said in the last couple of hours.  "I've got to go take care of some things," he said, firmly clasping the hand that was offered to him as he and Howie looked at each other.


It was Howie's turn to try to counter a shaky voice and fight off another wave of tears.  So much to say and so little time.  He smiled at the older man he'd only spent the sum total of maybe twenty-four hours with, if that, yet was as close as family.  "I have treasured every moment I’ve spent with you, Al." 


"Same here," Al said, his voice husky.  He didn't want to leave the young man's side, as if by remaining in the Waiting Room he could keep the inevitable from happening.  But that was foolishness.  Sam needed him, too. 


"We'll see each other again," Howie said firmly, tears sliding down his cheeks.  “Where the streets are made of gold…”


Al didn't know what to say to the younger man who was as special to him as the son he'd never had, so he just grabbed him in an embrace.


When they broke apart, neither spoke, neither able to trust his voice.  Both knew if they started talking again, they wouldn't be able to tear themselves away.  Howie sat at the table and opened the Bible, raising a hand to his forehead to hide the tears that continued to fall.  Al, meanwhile, fought to regain control as he walked to the exit, where his wife waited with tearstains on her own cheeks.


Al didn't care whether the two Marines guarding the Waiting Room door saw or not as he went to Beth and drew her into an embrace, kissed her then turned and headed for the Control Room, his emotions at last again in firm check.


Entering the Control Room, he asked, "How long for the Imaging Chamber to come on?"


"Two minutes, Admiral," Ziggy informed him.  Al glanced up at the blue orb when there wasn't some sort of pert add-on from the computer but didn't say anything.  While he waited for the signal from Dom, he got the recharged handlink.  A moment later Dom said, "The Imaging Chamber is online, Admiral." 


Al marched up the ramp and into the chamber, barely noticing when the door sealed behind him.  Stepping onto the small pad in the center of the chamber, he said, "Ready." Then, taking a deep breath, Al pressed the button on the handlink that opened the Imaging Chamber door and stepped out into darkness and waited for his eyes to adjust to it.


Looking far worse than he had when Al left him, Sam lay crumpled on the floor, small pools of blood forming beneath him from the open wounds on his back.  The Leaper's head was tilted at what had to have been a painful angle, but there was no way for Al to try to make him more comfortable.


"Sam? Can you hear me?" Al asked.  Sam twitched, but didn't respond.  Al didn't know if the movement had been involuntary and coincidental or if Sam really could hear him.  He decided to operate under the latter choice.


"I'm sorry for yelling at you earlier. What you did was incredibly brave.  I don't know how you stood it as long as you did, pal."  He knelt and hovered a hand over Sam's shoulder, as if he could actually touch him.  "You’ve saved those people twice now, you know."


Sam remained unconscious and quiet, and Al exhaled a shuddering sigh.  "Howie's ready, he says.  So, you just do whatever you have to do."


Time continued to slip by, quietly but inexorably drawing dawn closer. Not once did Al stray more than a few steps from Sam's still unconscious form.  The hour or so of sleep he'd gotten in the Waiting Room began to wear thin, and the resumption of the heavy stress of the situation began to take its toll on him.  After an hour, he grabbed the chair that was kept in the Imaging Chamber for those times when he had to be in there long hours, dragged it over close to where Sam lay, and got as comfortable as he could.  When he caught himself nodding off, after taking himself to task, Al had Ziggy center him on the rest of Howie's congregation where they were housed in another building. A couple were awake and talking or praying, most, however, were getting what sleep they could since there was no telling what the morning would bring.  Al could have told them what was coming, but he refused to allow himself to dwell on it, and recentered again on Sam.  He paced and pondered, doing whatever it took to keep himself awake, but after a while, he couldn't deny his need to sit down for a few minutes. Before he sat down, Al went again and knelt beside Sam and called his name. "Sam?  You okay, buddy?"  Another almost imperceptible moan was his only response.  "Okay," he said softly. "I'm here for you, Sam. I'm here." 


Taking a seat in the chair, Al tucked the handlink into his shirt pocket then leaned back in the chair, crossed his legs comfortably, last of all folding his arms loosely across his chest.  The vague sounds of the compound beyond the door of Sam's prison were almost soothing.  Closing his eyes for a moment, Al sighed, whispering under his breath, "I will be so glad when this leap is over." But he didn't realize what he'd said as his body took advantage of the few moments of stillness to seize the rest it so desperately needed.  So soundly did Al fall asleep that he didn't hear the soft moan some time later that heralded Sam's return to consciousness.




Al-Haatim’s compound

Monday, April 26, 2004

9:38 A.M.


As Sam forced his swollen eyes open, he wondered at the dreams he'd had.  He'd been dreaming that he was folded into a magician's trunk, while Al fumbled with the locks, calling to him in a muffled voice.  As awareness returned to him, Sam realized that his dream had been partially grounded in reality.  He was, in fact, crumpled once again in the closet-sized cell, and the sound of heavy breathing alerted him to the fact that he wasn't alone.  Since he would obviously feel if another person were in the tiny room with him, he had to be hearing Al.


"Al?" Sam croaked around a bone-dry throat.  He dragged himself into a sitting position, and instantly regretted doing so.  His back screamed in agony and he only kept himself from vocally doing the same by cramming a fist into his mouth.  When the red flood of pain faded, he tilted his head back, resting it against the wall behind him, allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkness.  When he was able to see Al, he sighed at the view he had.  The Observer's lined face was slack, but his brow was crumpled, and his head was dropped against his chest in a way that told Sam the nap had not been intentional.


"Al," Sam said again, only slightly louder, too aware that any patrolling soldiers would hear him and might decide to take advantage of his consciousness to have a little "fun" with him.


After a moment, Sam called to his friend again, but still gained no response.  Though the darkness was intense, the thin line of light managing to get under the bottom of the door was almost enough to allow him a fairly good view of Al's face.  Though it meant gritting his teeth as stars of pain danced before his eyes, Sam shifted his position a bit, gaining a more side-by-side situation to the chair on which the Observer sat sleeping.  Now, by leaning forward a bit, he was able to get an even closer look at his friend.  The look made him forget for a moment, the pain burning every inch of his back.  It was soberingly clear that this leap was taking a harder toll on his best friend than he would have guessed.  Sam wasn't foolish enough to think that Al didn't take every leap with a high degree of seriousness, however  this was the first time he could recall seeing the unmistakable signs of exhaustion so plainly exhibited on Al Calavicci's face.  "Oh, Al," he murmured under his breath as he watched his friend twitch as if in response to hearing his name. The Observer didn't wake and Sam decided that unless something changed radically, he was going to take a turn at watching over his friend while he rested. It was the least he could do for the man who had for over a decade, without fail, always been there for him.


Wondering how his host would have reacted to the situation, Sam sat up a bit straighter when the most obvious thought occurred to him.  A faint memory of the last time Sam had occupied the aura of Howie Lockwood returned to him without him having to struggle much past the sharp pain that fogged his mind.  A college football captain... and Al... kneeling... to pray.  Slightly self-consciously, Sam bowed his head and began to pray, not quite certain what he should be praying for.  After a while, a focus came to him, and he prayed for guidance to do the right thing.


However, it was as if something or someone meant not to allow the Leaper any opportunity to make a connection with whatever it was he was praying for.  Sam had barely passed two minutes in his praying when the unmistakable sound of men approaching jerked his head up.  The increasing volume of voices, along with the sound of trucks moving somewhere close by told him that something was up beyond the door he was staring at.


***Yes, Sam. That's right. Your time is up.***


As if confirming the cold thought that had darted through his mind, the men's voices outside the door dropped to silence and Sam’s gaze flew to one side of the door as a key was inserted in a lock and turned and the door thrown open wide.  Involuntarily, Sam threw his arms up before his face against the bright sunlight that suddenly poured into his cramped cell.  It must have looked to the guards like he was attempting to fight them, because before he could utter a sound, two of the soldiers surged forward, each grabbing one of his arms and hauling him outside. There a couple of punches, one to his middle and the other to his face, sent Sam to the ground where he lay face down in the dirt for a moment. After that, he was grabbed up again and dragged across the compound and hefted unceremoniously into the back of a truck.  He lay on his wounded back, the agony of the already sun-heated bed of the truck searing his back and bringing tears to his eyes.  The two soldiers climbed into the truck, each taking a position on either side of him.  When he started to raise a hand to shield his eyes, Sam froze as he heard a gun cocked then suddenly found the muzzle of an AK-47 aimed directly at his right eye.


‘Al....wake up!’ he screamed in his mind, almost afraid to breathe.




As the handlink in his breast pocket started to squeal like a panicked piglet, Al started awake, nearly taking a spill from the chair in which he'd spent his vigil.  He rubbed his eyes, panicked that he'd nodded off for a few minutes.


"Sam?" he started to say, before he realized that the door to the cell was open and he was alone.  Al jumped to his feet and seized the handlink, ripping his pocket as he yanked it free.  "Center me on Sam, now!" he bellowed, mentally cursing himself in every language he knew.  If he could beat himself with the whips that had tormented Howie and Sam, he would, Al thought murderously as the image around him changed from the empty, dingy cell to the bumping, dusty bed of a truck bouncing its way down dirt roads.  Sam was lying on his back, squinting against the sun, while two guards sat on the bumps of the rear tire allowances, their rifles pointed at him.


"Sam!  Oh, God, Sam!" Al said, moving to stand over Sam, straddling his friend's form out of respect rather than necessity.  Though he  wished that his holographic form could cast a shadow, Al nonetheless hoped  that the fact that Sam could focus on his face rather than the direct light of the sun would help. 


"I'm an ass, Sam," Al said, his face crumpling.  "I shouldn't have fallen asleep.  I let you down."


"No... you didn't," Sam forced out.  The guards looked down at him, then at each other.  One of them made a "loco" gesture with his free hand.  Obviously, they thought the injuries and the sun had addled the American's brain, so they felt no need to interfere with his babbling.


"Yes, I did, Sam," Al insisted.  "I meant to..."


"It's okay," Sam gritted the words, striving not to give in to the agony and just scream. "You're here now. Just... just tell me what's happening now.  Where are we going?"


"To the village, you fool!" snapped one of the soldiers, prodding Sam with the muzzle of the gun.  Sam cried out in pain, and both soldiers sniggered.


"al-Haatim's getting ready to make an example of you, Sam," said Al, casting a venomous look at the soldiers.  "I don't know how I'm going to get you out of this, but I swear to you... I will."


"Just...stay with me..." Sam said.


"I will.  Right by your side the whole time," Al assured him.


Sam nodded, and let his eyes slide closed.  "You're...a good friend..."


It was the second time those words had been uttered in Al Calavicci's presence, and the effect they had on him now was no less powerful than it had been before.


When Al didn't say anything, Sam opened his eyes to mere slits; it was enough to see his best friend ostensibly standing astride his body.  It reminded Sam, oddly enough, of a picture of the Colossus of Rhodes that he'd seen in a book as a boy.  The mental picture of an Al Calavicci the size of that particular one of the Seven Wonders of the World made Sam chuckle in spite of the situation at hand.  He didn't care that one of the soldiers told the other, "It won't take much for al-Haatim to do this one in.  The heat has already begun to destroy his brain."


Just then a hard jolt sent Sam's body skittering sideways against one of the soldiers' legs.  He cried out when the man planted a boot on his side and shoved him back to the middle of the truck bed.


"Oh, God," Sam gasped. "How much further? I can't take much more of this."  The suddenness with which the truck ground to a halt just then, made Sam wish he'd never said a word.  Shifting his eyes upward to look at Al, he asked with his eyes what he'd just voiced aloud.


Al, looked around, dread gathering in his heart with the ferocity of a Class 5 tornado.  "We're here, Sam," he said quietly.


"Here?"  Sam whispered.


"Yeah," Al said as he looked down into his friend's eyes.  "We're back at the village."


Sam weakly lifted his head to try to see where they were for himself, but at his first movement, the soldiers seized his arms and yanked him to his feet.  He yelped in pain, which earned him a sharp cuff that drove him to his knees.  His fall caused him to pass through Al's image, and he apologized.


Over Al's gentle, "It's okay, Sam," one of the soldiers jeered, "It's a little late to be sorry now."  He aimed a kick at Sam's backside, sending the Leaper flat onto his wounded stomach and chest.


Naasir Waitimu had ridden in the lead truck, and so was one of the first to get out and turn to watch the third truck come to a halt.  Marching toward it, he watched the two men assigned to ride with Lockwood, approving their handling of him.  He glanced over the side of the truck at the man who had become a thorn that just wouldn't be plucked out of their flesh... at least not until now.  Walking around to the back of the truck, he lowered the tailgate and stepped back, waiting until the man he saw as Howie Lockwood raised his head just enough to look at him. Naasir just smirked at the pleading expression in the man's eyes then allowed the smirk to fade to coldness.  Giving a sharp wave of his hand, he barked, "Get out of the truck, Pastor."


His arms trembling from pain and exhaustion and not a little fear, Sam pushed himself to his knees, and then shakily stood.  He made as if to sit on the tailgate before stepping down, but the soldiers in the truckbed with him grabbed him roughly under the arms and hefted him to the ground, practically throwing him.  He crumpled into a kneeling position before Waitimu, who reached down and grabbed him by the hair to yank his head up.


Looking down into Sam's eyes, Waitimu said, "You shall beg US for mercy before it is all over.  And where shall your God be then?"


"Right... where He's always been," Sam gasped, paying for the answer with a heavy slap to his face.


"Hiding," Waitimu snarled.  Flicking a glance at the huts and small buildings of the village, he waved his arm, carving a wide arc to encompass them all as he added, "Just like all of these people whom you have tricked and misled."  Grabbing Sam by the hair again, he hauled the Leaper to his feet then used his grip to turn Sam physically as he pointed around the center of the small village.  "They hide from us because you have made them weak and afraid."  Finally shoving Sam away, Waitimu gazed malevolently, watching him slowly get to his feet again then  turn toward him.  "When they see you crying and begging for mercy... calling out to your... God," he sneered the last word, "they will see for themselves what a weak and useless God he is."  Waitimu would have said more, but the sound of another vehicle approaching drew his attention and he moved away to gaze back up the road then smiled.  Turning to look at the condemned man, he told him, "al-Haatim has arrived.  We will soon be finished here... and so will your God."


Sam looked defiantly at the cruel man.  "Even when I am gone," he said, "God will not be finished here."


Waitimu narrowed his eyes at him, but turned to shout at the other soldiers.  "The commander is coming! Get those villagers into position!  And drag the ones hiding in their huts outside if you have to!  al-Haatim wants a full audience!"  They scrambled to obey his orders, snapping themselves out of their enjoyment of their lieutenant's badgering of the missionary.


Sam risked a glance at Al while Waitimu's attention was distracted.  The Observer's face was white and he drew near to Sam.  He'd shouted uselessly at the soldiers who'd thrown Sam from the truck, but fallen silent while Naasir had taunted his friend.  Al looked back at Sam and met his eyes.  Raising the almost forgotten handlink, he shrugged helplessly.  "Something more needs to be done... but Ziggy won't make a prediction beyond reiterating that Howie's work has to continue."  Al's face told Sam that his heart's desire was that the prediction meant they'd be able to spare Howie's life.


"Doesn't she have anything... some theory beyond that?" Sam whispered again, ducking his head and wiping his hand over his mouth to disguise his talking.  His answer was a shake of Al's head and a quiet, "No.  Ziggy's clammed up."  Glancing at the handlink a moment, he looked again at his friend. "I think Ziggy's scared."  In another situation it might have made him chuckle to say that, determined to go back and have sport with the hybrid computer, but something inside wasn't allowing levity about any of this. That point was hammered in harder when a shadow fell across the ground in front of Sam.  The look on his friend's face was clear enough; al-Haatim was standing behind the hologram.


"Frightened?" the lean man asked, sweat glistening on his face so that he only looked all the more evil as he unknowingly stepped through the hologram.


Sam didn't respond, just looked at a spot just behind the man's shoulder--to Al--so that al-Haatim wouldn't be able to read the fear that would slip into his eyes if he looked the commander full in the face. 


"Do you honestly think your God will save you?" al-Haatim sneered again.


Sam now looked to the right, where the villagers who'd been captured had been ushered after being escorted out of the trucks at gunpoint.  They were joined by the villagers who'd escaped capture, either by running or by not attending the underground church meeting.  Keeping his gaze fixed on the sea of trembling Sudanese people, Sam said evenly, "He already has."


Fury rose up in Mulalo al-Haatim and a low growl boiled up from his throat and he started toward the missionary, jerking one arm back, prepared to knock the man to the ground.  It was the way Lockwood stood a little straighter and lifted his chin and stared at him, that caused him to rethink then stop.  He would not be cheated of the agonizing end he intended for this one.  The people had to see for themselves their error, and they were going to see it when Howie Lockwood at last lay in a pool of his own blood in the dirt under their feet.


Pursing his lips a moment, al-Haatim stepped back, signaling to his second in command.  Waitimu hurried to him and nodded once at the order, "Tie him up again."  As Waitimu and another soldier went to grab Sam, al-Haatim said, "This will, I think, be the lesson that teaches... them," he waved a hand at the tight cluster of frightened villagers to one side, "who is stronger."


“No!!  Leave him alone!  Stop!” yelled Al as Waitimu and one of his subordinates tied Sam's hands together and tethered him to a high tree branch, no set of poles at the ready here in the village.  Al’s breath caught in his throat when Sam cast a pleading glance his way, unobserved by the soldiers.  "Be strong, Sam!" was all he could think to say to his friend.


This time, Naasir Waitimu prefaced each strike with a question, obviously hoping to weaken the pastor's resolve.


"Will you renounce your God?" he shouted, lashing Sam's already torn back.


"No," grunted Sam.


"Will you stop preaching?"


"No!"  Another lash.


After every answer another lash was laid across Sam's bleeding back. His body twisted and turned each time he jerked, fighting back the screams that he knew were inevitable.  Behind him, he heard Al alternating between encouraging him and berating Waitimu.


"Will you leave this country and never return?"


"N-no!" Sam gasped then cried out when the lash again bit into his flesh, his eyes squeezed shut for a moment.  When he opened them after a moment, he blinked against the sweat beginning to sting his eyes, managing to shake his head a little.  Blinking again, he scanned the small building that he happened to be facing at that moment. Hearing al-Haatim's second in command barking another question to which everyone present knew he would answer 'no', Sam started to close his eyes and wait for the lash to fall. A small movement near the open window of the building caught his eye and he turned his head a bit to look more closely.  What he saw was a young, dark-skinned man watching what was happening in the middle of the village.  For a moment, he and the young man stared at each other, but in the next instant Sam screamed as another vicious lash tore across his shoulders.  "No!" he answered the question when he could get his breath. Darting a look at the window again he saw the young man was gone.





Dropping the whip to his side for a moment at a signal from al-Haatim, Naasir walked up to Sam and roughly spun him around to face the villagers.  To a person, they were weeping. 


"Do you see what this Christian faith gets you?" al-Haatim said, pacing in front of his second-in-command and the annoying American missionary.  "Do you honestly think this is worth it?"


From somewhere outside of the forced gathering,  a shaky voice responded, "We must obey God rather than man."


Every head whipped around to see who had spoken.  Sam was astounded to see the young man who'd been watching from the window now emerge from the building, looking terrified, but holding a Bible in his hands and reading from it.


He took another step forward, his hands shaking so furiously Sam wasn't sure how he managed to read, "The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had murdered by hanging Him on a tree.  God exalted this man to His right hand as ruler and Savior," he paused, swallowing hard, but his voice was a bit stronger when he continued, "to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.  We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him."


When he finished reading and finally looked up, the soldiers seemed to snap out of a reverie.  al-Haatim was livid, and his first action was to punch Sam in the stomach.


While the missionary moaned and coughed, al-Haatim pointed at the young man holding the open Bible, shouting, "Bring him to me!"  Within seconds, three soldiers swarmed at the young man, grabbing him then pushing and shoving him toward their commander.  One of the men tried to grab the Bible from the young man's resistant hands, even slowing down the small group’s progress toward al-Haatim by yanking and pulling at the book. At a curt order from Naasir, the man stopped, having to settle for spitting in the youth’s face as they brought him before the commander.


"Who are you, boy?" al-Haatim demanded, fury in every inch of his body, as he raked the young man with cold, glittering eyes.  "What is this?" he slapped at the Bible. "Are you one of the stupid who blindly follow this man after his God?"


"M-my name is James Matunde," the young man said, even as he quivered.  He hugged the book tight against his chest, answering the second question now, "This is Pastor Howie's Bible, the one he teaches us from."  He looked at his toes, dusty in their sandals for a moment before looking up to meet al-Haatim's eyes.  "And if it is stupid to follow God, then I am a fool for God.  B-because," he turned to look at Sam, who appeared to be his beloved Pastor Howie, as he finished, "because I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ!"


Rage began to burn in Mulalo al-Haatim's blood as he moved forward until barely a hand could have been put between him and the young man standing before him on shaking knees but with a lift to his chin and a look in his wide dark eyes that he didn't like.  A long moment passed then he took a step back and walked closely around James Matunde, crowding him until they were again face to face.  "How strong will your faith be, Mr. Matunde," he mocked, "when you watch this... man groveling on the ground at my feet before I kill him for the infidel dog that he is?"  He shoved his face into James' sweating one. "How long will your faith last when you have no pastor to lead you?"  He waited for the young man to answer and when no sound was forthcoming out of James Matunde's mouth, al-Haatim's fury turned to gloating as he threw his head back and laughed long and loud.  He laughed until he doubled over for a moment then stood up and gradually reined in his enjoyment of winning the challenge with the misled younger man.  Scanning James from head to toe, al-Haatim smirked at him then flicked a hand, ordering, "Put him with the rest of the sheep over there.  He can bleat along with them."


"Stand up to this bully, James.  You can do it, kiddo!"  Al tried to encourage James, but the youth couldn't hear him.


Tears streamed down James Matunde's face as he was roughly shoved to the front of the crowd.  Comforting hands touched his shoulder, but it was clear the young man was devastated by his failure to respond to al-Haatim.


"Al," Sam breathed under al-Haatim's renewed laughter at the way Matunde was crying, "do you think...?"


Al was already punching the handlink, frantically trying to get an answer, as al-Haatim turned to Waitimu and gestured at Sam.  "Cut him down," said the commander.  "I doubt he has the strength to run now."


At the sound of the order being given to cut Sam down, Al reactively looked across the way, wincing and hurting for his friend as Sam  collapsed under his own body weight onto the hot, dusty earth.  Yet as much as he felt like rushing to Sam's side to offer him whatever encouragement he could, the Observer felt even more the need to move closer to young James Matunde. A whisper flickered through his mind, mocking him that he was turning his back on his best friend, but Al dismissed it; Sam would understand his reasoning.  Turning back to face James, Al looked past the tears on the youth's cheeks, looking into those dark eyes as if they could see him.


"It's no sin to be afraid, James," he told the young man. "But trust me, that one's nothing but a dressed up bully." When he saw James' glance shift in his direction, Al hesitated. Had his voice reached across time to reach the young man?  A minute passed and as the seconds ticked by, he watched James bow his head, covering his eyes with one hand, while the other clutched Howie Lockwood's Bible tightly against his chest. His heart started to sink; it appeared the boy was giving up.  In the next moment, however, Al got a reminder that appearances are sometimes misleading, as James lifted his head high, the look in his eyes determined.


James took a step forward, never loosing his grip on the Bible he hugged to his chest.  "I love you, Pastor Howie," he said in a loud voice.  "But my faith does not rely on Pastor Howie... and... yes, my faith will be strong when he is gone!"


al-Haatim whirled to face the young man who had now stepped away from the safety of the crowd.  His eyes blazed for a moment and he narrowed his gaze on James Matunde as if he were tightening a laser beam.  James flinched, but took another brave step forward, and then another.


"Is that so?" said al-Haatim finally.  "Then let's see about the truth of that statement."  He turned back to Waitimu and jerked his hand toward the missionary who still lay heaving in the dirt.


Nodding, Naasir Waitimu reached down and yanked Sam to his feet, ripping the ropes from his wrists in the next moment.  Sam cried out as the scratchy fibers scraped his skin.  He swayed slightly as he stood there, but didn't flinch as Mulalo al-Haatim moved closer, turning to address the villagers.


al-Haatim stabbed another icy look at James Matunde where he stood almost halfway across the small area. Raising his arm, he pointed a finger at James then moved it as if pointing to each person still crowded together.  "Anyone who renounces the Christian God is free to leave without fear.  You will not be harmed." He let his eyes linger upon a few of the faces, staring into one's eyes a second before moving to the next person.  "Those who choose to remain in stupidity... you will watch and see what awaits you.  And that is death!” Mulalo roared.  “You will be killed as surely and as dead as this one is about to be.” He gave them a moment to consider his offer then demanded, “Choose now!”


At the back of the crowd, amongst those who’d remained in the village following the previous day’s raid, five people backed away from the crowd, running for their homes before al-Haatim changed his mind.


“Only five?” Mulalo barely hid his surprise, which quickly transformed into disgusted anger.  “Very well, then.  Say goodbye to your precious Pastor Howie,” he said, as he turned to face Sam.  He reached for the holster at his side and withdrew the Glock, releasing the safety and aiming it directly at Sam.


"NO!!!!!!" screamed Al.




Many times in his years of leaping Sam Beckett had come face to face with death. A handful of those times he perceived  the cold clamminess of his mortality staring at him, but he had never before felt with such certainty that his life was being measured not in minutes but in seconds.  He heard Al's frantic scream but even the fear in his best friend's voice could not drag his eyes from those of the man releasing the safety on the pistol then aiming it at him with calm deliberation. At first the aim was at his head but as a slow, cold smile crawled across Mulalo al-Haatim's face, Sam watched the aim lower several inches.


‘So this is it?’ he thought. ‘This is where it ends?’


Sam swallowed as he stared at the gun then swallowed again as his gaze moved from the muzzle back to the hand holding it.  A shiver ran through him as he realized he was watching the finger on the trigger begin  to squeeze, one tiny increment... then another.  But he couldn't just stand there and watch until the trigger’s release sent the bullet into his body, so Sam lifted his eyes once more to al-Haatim.  It was the sight of the triumph now shining in those small, dark eyes that helped him find the strength to straighten his bleeding back and square his shoulders as he held his head up.  The thought that it didn't matter now who might think he was crazy, ran through Sam’s mind as he looked across the way to where Al stood, seemingly riveted to the ground, his face white. The only sound Sam could hear was a soft little breeze ruffling through the leaves of the large tree to which he had been tied and beaten.  In some part of his mind, in that moment, Sam made his peace. ‘All I've ever wanted was to go home,’ he thought then put that aside as he looked intently at Al. He didn't hear the calm strength in his voice as he called out, "I love you, Al."  Even as his friend's name crossed his lips, Sam heard a loud noise... and then all he knew was the brilliant blue as he Leaped.




Al barely had time to even nod at Sam's words when Mulalo al-Haatim let out a tight shriek of rage and pulled the trigger.  "NO!!!!" he screamed again, as the bang of the gun went off, but at virtually the same instant, Sam Leaped, and as he did so, Al wondered for a split second why the image hadn't shifted or altered, as he heard a cry of pain and was stunned to see Howie Lockwood standing where Sam had been nanoseconds ago.


Howie's green eyes widened and his hands went reflexively to a spot midway between his navel and his breastbone.  Blood began to trickle out between his fingers and Howie raised one hand to see the thick red stains there.


"No," Al whispered.  "No..."  He was so horrified at what he saw it barely dawned on him that for him to be witnessing this, Sam must have Leaped into someone else in the immediate vicinity.




As rapidly as he was swallowed up in the vast blueness, equally as fast, Sam felt himself jerked out of it again as he was slammed into the next life he had to fix or help with such speed and ferocity that he swayed then stumbled a step.  Opening his eyes, the memories of the leap just past were as crystal clear in his mind as if he were still standing…  A chill passed over Sam as he looked at the spot where he’d been, where now stood a tall man with blond hair and a huge spreading circle of blood in the middle of his body.  What was scarier was when the wounded man slowly turned his head to look at him. Sam wanted to say something but the words wouldn't come.  Unnerved, Sam watched the man's gaze divert to what should have been a patch of thin air in front of him and utter, "Al?"


Sam forgot about everything, about the people screaming and soldiers shouting orders as he started forward. It was only then he realized he had a rifle in his hands, flinging it aside as he rushed forward the few steps separating him and the mortally wounded man smiling almost gently at Al.  Sam reached the man just as his knees gave way under him and he dropped to the ground.  Grabbing him and easing him down, Sam went to his knees and drew the man against his own body.  "Easy," he said softly, even as his gaze dropped to the ugly open wound from which the man's lifeblood was steadily oozing.  Sam, however, wasn't prepared for what happened next when he heard Al attempting to encourage the man.


The first shocking thing was hearing Al tell him, "Sam... you gotta help Howie."  Sam's heart almost stopped beating when he realized, without hesitation, whose eyes he was looking into, but he couldn't seem to make his tongue work.  All he could do was nod when Howie Lockwood, now with a trickle of blood at one corner of his mouth, looked up at him and said, "Ni..ce to meet you... Sam."


Sam sat still and quiet, holding the younger man as Howie added, "It's... okay.  I... knew be-before... I came here... this would... happen."


"I'm sorry," Sam said, finally finding his voice.


Howie shook his head slightly, a small smile on his face.  "N-nothing ... to be... sorry about."  He turned to look at Al, who cried unabashedly, and he reached out a hand to the hologram.  Al extended his own hand, but Howie's went through it.  Shaking his head, Al gasped for breath to speak around his sobs, but Howie was struggling to say something, and Al waited.  "That... that goes... for you, too... Al.  Just... keep your promise...."


"I will," replied Al in a small voice.


In the next moment, James Matunde had joined them.  Howie's bloodstained lips spread in a smile when he caught sight of the young man.  "J-James," he coughed out.




From one moment to the next, James Matunde's heart was torn with grief as he watched Mulalo al-Haatim put a bullet into his beloved Pastor Howie's midsection.  Tears flooded his eyes and, it seemed, his soul as he stood and stared, unable to move.  He didn't hear someone calling out to him to run. He couldn't... wouldn't run, but neither could he get his feet to work to take him to his mentor and brother in Christ and give Pastor Howie whatever comfort he could. It was only when he saw Naasir Waitimu throw his rifle down and rush to catch Pastor Howie that strength returned to James' feet and legs and he flew across the way.  Dropping the Bible in the dirt, James flung himself at Naasir, doing his best to shove al-Haatim's right hand man away.  How dare Naasir try to pretend that he wanted to help the man whose only crime had been to bring the truth of the Almighty God to him and his people? It was the sound of Pastor Howie coughing his name that made James stop, immediately shifting his attention to the now pasty-hued face of his mentor. Inside, James' heart cried as it struck him how calm those green eyes were even as the American missionary’s life ebbed away.  For a moment he was ashamed when he blurted out, "Pastor Howie... no... you can't leave us."  He was even more ashamed as he watched the dying man turn his eyes up to Naasir Waitimu and gasp, "Forgive him..."


"He loves you," was Naasir's response, and Pastor Howie nodded, casting his green eyes on James' deep brown ones again.


"J-James... would you stop me... f-from seeing Jesus?" asked Pastor Howie.


His eyes flooding with tears, James admitted, "No... but I don't want to be without you, Pastor Howie!  I love you!"


"I... love you, too... James," gasped Pastor Howie.  His breathing was becoming more labored. He closed his eyes for a moment then opened  them again, tears now filling them.  "Do... Do you have... Jesus... in your heart?"


"Yes, oh yes, Pastor Howie!" proclaimed James, his shoulders shaking with the sobs he was fighting to hold in.


"Then... we will see each other... again... won't we?" coughed out Pastor Howie.


Through his tears, James looked into those green eyes watching him, unable to ignore how Pastor Howie was beginning to struggle to pull air into his lungs, but he couldn't not answer.  "Yes," he whispered then felt his heart leap when Pastor Howie smiled at him and nodded his head ever so slightly.


A small movement caught his eye and he glanced down to see one of Pastor Howie's hands lift away from his bloody chest toward him. Grief and his love for this man flooded James’ being and he gently grabbed the bloody hand and pressed it against his cheek. Gazing into his friend's eyes, he declared, "I will never forget you, Pastor Howie.  Thank you for bringing me Jesus."  A thought came to him just then and he hesitated before asking, "What will the others do without you here to tell them about... our Jesus?"  But he barely heard Pastor Howie's whisper, "You... tell them... James," when there was an angry roar behind them.  He didn't even get a chance to look around before he was grabbed and physically flung several feet away.  What he saw when he righted himself caused James to freeze.




Mulalo al-Haatim knelt before the American pastor, seething at the accepting peace he saw there.  It was bad enough Naasir was cradling the dying man's body... but to allow him to speak to, to encourage the upstart Matunde...  Mulalo wanted to see suffering.  He wanted to see Lockwood begging, recanting... regretting his travels to Sudan, his teaching of the people.  He wanted the infidel to regret the day he'd ever met Mulalo al-Haatim.


Howie looked up into the face twisted with hatred and anger.  He heard Al berating the man who'd shot him, but the hologram's breath was wasted, for Mulalo couldn't hear him and did not react.  Shifting his eyes up to Al, Howie weakly said, "Forgive..."


Al looked into Howie's earnest eyes, and subsided into reflective sorrow.  He didn't want Howie's last memory of him to be shouting and cursing.  "I'll try," he told the young man through the thick tears clogging his throat.


"Forgive?" sneered al-Haatim.  "You wish me to grant you forgiveness before you die?"


Howie's green eyes shifted back to the man who'd ordered repeated beatings over the months he'd worked and served in Sudan.  "No..."  His breath rattled in his throat, but Howie pressed on.  "I... forgive you..."


Had anyone who knew al-Haatim well at that moment been able to see the look on his face as the dying Christian missionary forgave him, they would have slunk away from his presence as fast as they could move. As if confirming that, the anger and hate riven paramilitary commander spat in Pastor Howie Lockwood's face. 


"I refuse your forgiveness!" he screamed at the dying man.  "I will never need your forgiveness.  You brought your own death on yourself.  Save your mewling for the hell that awaits you."  Hatred seemed to flow like quicksilver through his veins and in that moment, Mulalo al-Haatim pushed his face into the dying man's face, now close enough to see the filming coming over those green eyes, and screamed, "Die!"


Howie struggled hard for one more breath as al-Haatim screamed in his face.  The curse had barely fallen from the man's lips when Howie used his last moment of strength to lift his right hand and, to the shock of his enemy, pressed it gently against Mulalo’s cheek, his eyes fixed on the dark-skinned face that was harder to see now, even in the brightness of the noonday sun he couldn't feel. "I... forgive... you," he whispered then closed his eyes as his final breath escaped his lips.






Sam sat in amazement as he held onto Howie Lockwood's lifeless body, now gone limp in his arms.  Forgetting whose aura he wore, Sam acted as felt natural to him, gently smoothing the man's hair.  Beside him, he heard weeping in stereo... to his left from Al, and to his right from James, who was crawling closer to his dead friend and mentor.  When James reached Howie, he dropped his head against the man's shoulder, embracing him and sobbing.


"Stop that!" said Mulalo al-Haatim in a cold voice, and Sam wasn't sure whether he was speaking to James or to him.  Reaching into his pocket for a handkerchief, the commander stood and scrubbed away the bloody handprint the missionary had left on his cheek.  Disgusted, al-Haatim threw the soiled handkerchief at Howie's body.  "Stop that!" he said again, striding over to Sam and pulling him to his feet.  Howie's body flopped to the ground as Sam was forced to stand.  James embraced him all the tighter, his wails echoed by the villagers, who were edging closer.


"What do you think you were doing?" hissed Mulalo.  "Why did you hold the infidel?"


For a moment Sam's mind was blank as he looked into al-Haatim's angry eyes. He even spared a glance at Al, thinking that perhaps the Observer had heard Howie's murderer's hissed demand and would lay aside his grieving, but he didn't. Sam's eyes snapped back to the commander when the man hissed, "Naasir! Why were you holding onto the Christian's body like that?"


Sam thought for a moment but his answer wasn't thought out, it was simply what was right, no matter what it meant for him.  "It was the right thing to do," he said evenly, not reacting when Mulalo's eyes seemed dangerously close to popping out of his head. Realizing that whomever he'd leaped into was close to the hatred driven man, he dared to add in a somewhat familiar tone, "Besides, he can't hurt you now."  He wasn't sure what was going through the man's brain but it was clear that Mulalo al-Haatim's mind was working fast.


Mulalo stared at his second in command as if he were looking at someone he wasn't sure he recognized.  Naasir wasn't prone to trembling or hysterics, one of the primary reasons, along with his loathing of all missionaries bringing 'infidel' religions into the country, that al-Haatim had selected him to be his right hand.  Now, however, he stared at a man who seemed to be wavering, of two minds.  He decided to find out here and now where Naasir's heart and mind were set.  Stepping back a couple of paces, Mulalo dropped a passing glance at the body on the ground and the young Sudanese man weeping over it.  Pointing at them, Mulalo turned a sharp gaze on Sam as he said, "Dispose of the body."


"What?!" Sam gasped.


"Burn it!" Mulalo shouted.  "Prove that what I've just witnessed you do meant nothing to you!" 


Before Sam could reply, an angry hologram leaped to his feet, his face wet with tears and flung himself at the commander, shrieking, "Don't you touch him, you filthy pig!"


James Matunde's voice rose above Al's as the horrific order penetrated his grief and brought him to his feet, and moving him to face the killer of Pastor Howie.  "No. You will not touch him!"


"What?!"  al-Haatim turned to face James, staring down at him, but the young man would not be intimidated.  "I should kill you as well."


"No," Sam said, reaching a hand out to snag Mulalo's arm.


"No?!"  The harsh face was now staring into Sam's.  "No?!  You dare to interfere with me, Naasir?"  Without waiting for a reply, he turned again to face James.  "I should kill you where you stand," he said again.


"You can try," said a deep voice as a large man came to stand behind James.  "But kill James, and I will take his place to protect Pastor Howie's body.  You will not defile him further."  More men were gathering as well, and Mulalo looked with increasing outrage at his second in command.


"Tell the men to open fire."


"Sam!  No!  You can't!"  An outrage of a different sort was written all over Al Calavicci's face.


"No," Sam quietly said.


al-Haatim was incensed as his second in command continued to defy his orders and confound him with his confusing behavior.  He opened his mouth to bellow at him, but Sam was speaking again.


"Do you want to create a village of martyrs?"  Sam gestured at the group of men, now joined by two others who somehow had gained the confidence to take a stand as well.  "We've given them one martyr today.  Do you want to empower them further?"


al-Haatim's rage and fury boiled hotter and hotter as he glared at Naasir Waitimu who had, it seemed, lost his mind over nothing more than a simple killing.  But why?  He had seen Waitimu kill others at his order before, why would he snap now?  Aiming a malevolent stare at his second in command, Mulalo whirled to face the small but clearly determined group of men who had moved to encircle the body of the fallen missionary, each man's expression speaking plainly of what anyone trying to reach Pastor Howie Lockwood's body could expect to encounter.


"You are all fools!" he screamed at them but his words fell on deaf ears it seemed.  Turning swiftly, he scanned the faces of his soldiers, all with their rifles held before them.  "Shoot them!" he ordered, striding toward them, gesturing wildly.  "They are as bad as the infidel. Cleanse this village of them."  Going up to one soldier, he screamed in the man's face, "Shoot!  Shoot!"  But the man just looked at him then at his weapon then back to Mulalo's sweating, furious face and didn't say anything.


Sam didn't make a sound or dare to stir from where he stood as he watched the nearly apoplectic commander go to each of his men and make the same demand, but not one of the men obeyed, though they all looked decidedly uneasy.  If Mulalo al-Haatim hadn't been so eaten up with rage and outrage, he would have noticed how his men were eyeing the men of the village.  But Mulalo only knew that he had lost control, or at least a portion of control, over the situation.  As his mind worked wildly, he felt something on his left cheek and he swiped at it with his hand. "Surrounded by idiots, weak-minded peasants, and... and defiled by the blood of an infidel!" he spat the words as he scrubbed at his cheek from which he'd rubbed Howie Lockwood's blood.


The men exchanged glances with each other nervously as they watched their commander rubbing repeatedly at his clean cheek.  Not a word was spoken though.  Silence fell, even the sniffling of the villagers subsiding slightly as Mulalo's swiping at his cheek became more frantic.


Unheard by anyone but Sam, Al said in a cold voice, "May you never be able to stop feeling that.  I hope you always feel his hand on you."


Sam's eyes flickered to the harsh look mingling with the pain and grief on Al's face.  It had to be the exhaustion, he thought.  Al, to some extent, wore his heart on his sleeve, but not like this.  Even so, Sam found himself agreeing with the admiral's sentiment.  After a moment more of watching Mulalo al-Haatim's fierce rubbing increasing to the point where the man was about to scratch his own face, Sam stepped forward and put a hand on the evil man's shoulder.


"Sir," he said, striving to remain calm, "we should go."


In the heat and passion of the awful situation, Al thought Sam had lost his mind for trying to behave as if nothing had happened.  In spite of his feelings though, it got through to him that Sam was doing what he could to try to defuse a still very volatile situation.  Moving over to stand beside the Leaper, he took advantage of leveling cold glares at a man who could not see him.  Whether or not he would have spat the epithets that clamored to be said, he would never know, since the handlink chose that moment to squawk. Muttering under his breath, he pulled the handlink from his pants pocket and swiftly retrieved the information that Ziggy had signaled him he needed to see.  It was enough to divert him from his roiling emotions and draw him back to more reasonable thinking.


"Sam," he said, paused to take a calming breath then continued, "Ziggy says you're on the right track.  She says that if you can convince this... bastard," he settled for the least offensive derogatory remark he could think of in deference to the dead man on the ground, "to leave now, there's an eighty-nine point five percent chance that he doesn't come back here to try to take revenge on them."  His fingers skimmed over the buttons on the handlink.  "Which is more than I can say for the fate of some of his men."


Again Al paused, reading another bit of information scrolling across the handlink's screen.  The look on his face made even Sam shiver as Al walked over to get in Mulalo al-Haatim's face as much as he could as a hologram. "And you," he spat at the commander's sweating, angry face. "Two years from now you're gonna wind up in a looney bin." He raked the man with a cold glare then spared a look at his friend, relenting in his temper a bit to explain, "They end up keeping him in a strait jacket to prevent him from trying to mutilate his face." Looking at al-Haatim again, Al finished, saying, "According to the records, when he wasn't sedated, he kept insisting he had to do it to get rid of the missionary's blood that wouldn't come off his cheek."


Despite himself, Sam couldn't help casting a pitying look on al-Haatim.  Al saw the look and shook his head.  "You saw what he did to Howie.  What he wanted to do to these people."  He lifted the handlink and shook it at Sam.  "Are you forgetting what he did to you?  What he did before you even Leaped in here?"  Staring incredulously at his friend, Al sadly shook his head.  "Emotion is wasted on that one.  Just... get him out of here so he leaves these people alone."  The Observer turned his gaze to Howie Lockwood's body, now cradled in James Matunde's arms, and Sam watched his friend's posture sag as he finished, "Get him out of here so I don't have to see his blasted face any longer."


So sadly focused was he on watching as James Matunde, with the aid of the large man who had stepped up behind him when he had faced down al-Haatim, gently lifted Howie Lockwood's body and carried it into the small building where Sam had first seen the young man, Al didn't see how his friend managed to get the soldiers moving toward the trucks.  He didn't see how Sam managed to avoid al-Haatim's temper and convince the commander to be in the lead truck to leave the village. No, for several minutes, Al just watched and listened as James and the men of the village determined what needed to be done. Yet it was only a minute or two before he realized that he needed to get back to Sam, and so Al, moving quietly among the people who didn't know he was there, approached the low bed where they had reverently placed Howie's body and looked intently at the young face as he remembered other times.  Words escaped him, so Al silently made the sign of the Cross and, before he could change his mind, had Ziggy recenter him on Sam. 


He found the Leaper lingering near the last truck, the other three, including al-Haatim's having already departed.  The question he saw in Sam's eyes was a familiar one, and he once more accessed Ziggy through the handlink.  It was just as he said, "Ziggy's not sure what's left for you to do..." that they heard a now familiar voice call out, "Wait!"


Turning together, Leaper and hologram watched James Matunde, the front of his shirt stained with Howie Lockwood's blood, approach them with a determined expression on his face.  Both were even more surprised when James walked up to Sam and stared into his face.  Sam just waved a hand at one of the soldiers asking if he needed help.


"No," Sam told him, never taking his eyes from James' face. "Stay where you are," he added then waited for James to speak.


It was hard to say who of those watching were more startled when James Matunde looked into the eyes of the one he saw as Naasir Waitimu and said, "Thank you for what you did for Pastor Howie, and... forgive me..."


"Forgive you?" Sam asked, astonished.  He thought back through the strong memories of what he'd endured at the hands of the man into whose life he had just Leaped--the whipping, the taunting.  He recalled the dead eyes of the boy Naasir Waitimu had shot in the head, and he sadly shook his head.  "It is I who should be asking forgiveness of you," he said, thinking just how unlikely such a statement would be from the real Naasir.


James had a strange smile on his face that seemed to reflect the Leaper's thoughts.  Instead of saying how they both knew that the events of this day would very likely be repeated, James lifted his hands, palm upwards, and said, "Then today... let us forgive each other.  And tomorrow..."


Sam held up a hand to stop James from continuing.  "Today," he nodded, "we forgive each other."


James looked into the eyes of, he thought, Naasir Waitimu, and nodded, then nodded again in firmer agreement when Naasir said something he did not expect from a man of his nature. In fact, the words seemed more like something Pastor Howie might have said.


"Just take it one day at a time," Sam told the young man, offering him his hand.  As he felt James Matunde's firm handshake, he also felt a familiar tingling beginning in earnest deep inside himself. Giving the young man an encouraging smile, Sam turned and shouted, "Let's get out of here!"  As the driver started the engine, Sam went to the back of the truck and to the astonishment of the half dozen soldiers already seated there, he gestured for them to make room for him. Turning his back to the tailgate that was still down, Sam slid onto it and scooted back, letting his legs dangle. "Move out!" he called out loudly and the truck lurched forward. 


He never took his eyes off James as the young man walked after the truck, flanked on his left by a hologram keeping pace with him.  Then as James stopped and lifted his hand to wave to him, Sam felt the pull to leap surging stronger and he had just enough time to return the wave, and call out, "Don't let his death be in vain, James.  Keep walking." Just before the Leap took him away, Sam heard two words and took them with him into the blue. "I will."





When Sam Leaped out and the Imaging Chamber faded back to an empty room, Al realized he didn't want to leave it.  Though he had opened himself up to his grief when Howie had died before his eyes, once he was alone, the full power of it washed over him like a tidal wave, and Al allowed himself to give in completely to the sobs that wracked his body and sank him to his knees. 


He had no idea how long he'd stayed in there weeping before the tears turned into numbness.  All he knew was that eventually someone must have commanded Ziggy to open the Imaging Chamber door, because two sets of gentle hands took hold of him, guiding him to his feet and steering him mechanically through the Project.  The hands led him into his quarters, into the bedroom, and finally to the bed, where one pair of familiar loving hands took charge of him, undressed him, and tucked him in, tenderly soothing his forehead until he drifted off to sleep.




After a full twenty-four hours of sleep, Al awakened to find Beth sitting beside him, caressing his head in the same soft way that had lulled him to sleep.  Giving him an encouraging kiss, she wordlessly handed him the folded pages Howie had left in the Waiting Room.  The first, Al saw after a quick glance, was a letter to his parents, which Al set on the nightstand without reading out of deference to the family.  He did the same with the second--a letter to Howie's sister.  The third, however, was addressed to him.


As he gazed at the folded letter with "Al" printed on it, all vestiges of the healing sleep were wiped away from Al's mind.  A part of him wanted to never open it; if he never opened it then maybe....


"No," he whispered, as he sat up in the bed and shifted around to sit on the side of it, his eyes fixed on the single sheet of paper. "He wrote it for me to read and I'm going to." But it wasn't until he lifted his head to see Beth waiting quietly in the doorway that Al knew he couldn't... didn't want to read this letter alone.  Holding out his hand to her, he said softly, "Sit with me?" Only when his wife was again sitting beside him, and had given him an encouraging little hug, only then did Al look down at the letter a moment and then slowly opened it.  He started to read silently but then began to read it aloud.  It was almost like he could hear Howie's voice that way.


"Dear Al,


I am finding this letter to be the hardest of the three to write, mostly because we had so little time together, and yet the hours we've spent together have been as rich as a lifetime.  I have remembered you, as I could, always asking God to hold you in the palm of His Hand.  Our lives and paths were so different and yet, God crossed our paths for His greater purpose and glory.  I know that as you read this, I have already gone to join our Lord in glory.  The Apostle Paul wrote, “According to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing shall I be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death.  For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”   I saw your fear for me, my friend, but I went with joy, because I served Him with all of my being, even unto giving my life to bring His hope and love and forgiveness to the lost in Sudan. I know telling you not to grieve won't stop you, and it wouldn't be right to deny you your grief.  But after some time has passed and life has continued on, when you think of me, know that I have reached home and am happy beyond describing.  One last thing Al, remember, He said, "I go to prepare a place for you. Were it not so, I would have told you." So count on me to be standing with St. Peter when you get to the gates of heaven and we'll spend eternity together praising God... and nibbling on some chips and salsa.


Go on with God, Al.  I love you.




His voice had started cracking before he was even halfway through the letter, and though he chuckled at Howie's mention of chips and salsa, when he got to the final line, he could barely get the words out.  Beside him, Beth's hand traced comforting circles on his shoulder, and when he finished reading, her embrace was ready to receive his renewed weeping.




In the month following, kept so busy by Sam’s leaping, Al didn’t have time to dwell on the promise he’d made to Howie.  The promise, however, did not fade from his thoughts, nor did the pain of witnessing the young man’s murder.  He tried to shove the hurt down enough to continue functioning effectively for Sam, and succeeded for the most part.  Yet as time passed, the promise began to weigh more heavily upon him, and Al determined to fulfill it the first chance he got.




The connecting flight from Atlanta landed without incident at Daytona Beach International Airport three minutes early.  When the plane had taxied to the terminal and stopped, Al Calavicci remained seated, allowing the other passengers to disembark before him.  When only a handful of people remained, he got up from his seat and collected his briefcase and the small carry on case that was his only luggage then exited the plane.  Another twenty minutes or so was spent getting possession of the rental car Ziggy had arranged for him.  Stowing the suitcase and briefcase in the trunk, he wasted no time in getting away from the airport and headed to check in at the Hilton near the airport.


On most trips, by the time he reached the goal of getting into the room, it was almost worse than the flight.  This time everything, even check-in had gone smoothly, and after tossing his summer suit jacket on the bed, Al had gone out onto the balcony and looked out at the view of the city, but he wasn't looking at the beauty of the view.  Instead, his thoughts brushed lightly for an instant by a touch of melancholy, were on Charles and Pauline Lockwood. He had telephoned them a few days before and knew they were expecting him.  He hadn't been able to bring himself to tell them about the letters on the phone and now, Al wondered again what awaited him in a couple of hours.


His cover story was that he'd met Howie on a mission trip--obviously, he wouldn't be able to tell them the truth and he hoped, with a wry grin, that Howie would forgive him the fib.  How he would explain the way the letters had come into his possession, Al had not yet figured out.


The Florida heat was balmy and heavy, and beads of sweat began to form on Al's upper lip and at his temples.  Absently he reached into his pocket and retrieved his handkerchief, dabbing at the spots, before deciding to retreat back into the air-conditioned hotel room.  Inside, he reached for his cell phone and called Beth.


"I'm here," he told her.


For the past month Beth Calavicci had almost become a mother hen with one beloved chick over whom she had watched as much as she could.  Being married for forty plus years, she had seen Al grieve, really grieve, only a few times, so she was keenly acquainted with how he tended to try to hide his pain.  Yet, during this time, she had discovered that she only needed to be available as a comforting touchstone.  Her nearness, whether physical or just on the phone, was enough to give her husband the support he needed.  Now she smiled at the sound of his simple message.


"All checked in?" she asked gently, knowing he was.  She responded to his couple of questions about the project and Sam. "Everything's fine and no, Sam hasn't Leaped yet. So you can relax and just concentrate on meeting with the Lockwoods."  When there wasn't an immediate reply, Beth softly said, "Al?"


"I... I know I promised Howie I'd deliver the letters to his family.  I just..."  Al sighed and Beth could picture him rubbing a hand across his face.  "Maybe I should have just sent them FedEx..."


"Honey, stop," Beth said, knowing where this was headed.  "You know you wouldn't be able to stand it if you didn't bring them in person."


When he didn't say anything again for a while, Beth prompted him once more by saying, "You'll do fine."  Beth waited patiently on him then smiled when she heard him say, "You're right. I'll be okay," pleased to hear the small affirmative note creep back into his voice.  "Yes, you will." She didn't give his thoughts time to regress. "Do you have time to get a bite to eat before you meet them?  You didn't eat any breakfast before you left."


"Yes, I did..."


"Albert," Beth said with exaggerated patience, her eyes twinkling, already seeing in her mind his reaction. "A cup of coffee and a bite out of a half slice of toast is not breakfast!"  She couldn't help but grin when she heard him defending himself with, "It wasn't just toast. There was jelly on it, too!"


"Whatever," she laughed lightly.  "It wasn't a proper meal, and you need to eat. I can hear your stomach growling from here."  As if proving the sharpness of his wife's hearing, Al's stomach chose that moment to rumble lightly.


"What have you got? ESP?"


"Noooo," Beth told him as she poured herself another cup of tea. "Just forty-six years and counting of on the job experience."


"I love you," Al said. 


"I love you, too, babe.  Now go eat," she said.  "I'll talk to you later tonight."


Nodding, Al made his farewells, telling Beth he loved her again.  He'd found himself saying that to her more often in the past month.  In fact, he'd been calling his daughters more frequently, almost to the point of annoyance, repeatedly declaring how proud he was of them and how much he loved each of them.  Beth had reluctantly urged him to ease up when Christa had called her, worried that Al was seriously ill.


Taking a deep breath and standing to stretch, Al double checked his wallet and headed down to the restaurant in the lobby.


Though fully aware that he could have handled a small glass of wine with the light midday meal of broiled sea bass and a house salad, Al just had a glass of iced tea instead.  By the time he finished his meal, he felt decidedly better, and after a return to his room to freshen up, he checked his watch and saw that it was time he started for the Lockwood residence.  When the valet brought his car around, Al asked for directions, listened closely then got in and headed off down the street.


After only one turn around, he found Driftwood Drive in a well-kept neighborhood, and headed down it.  As he passed each house, looking for 3218, it occurred to Al that this quiet street... well, not that quiet, since there were some kids on bikes, and in one yard, several kids had gotten up an impromptu game of soccer... was the one where Howie Lockwood had grown up.  Another thought started to twine around his thoughts, but it threatened to undermine the hard won calm that talking to Beth and the good meal had achieved, and so Al pushed it away.  It was just about the same moment that he saw a simple black mailbox with 3218 printed on it in bright gold.  Seeing a car in the driveway and a Jeep Wrangler beside it, he pulled up in front of the two-story house and turned off the engine, and then just sat there, his hands on the wheel and his head turned, staring at the front door. 


He had no idea how long he would have sat there, or if maybe he would have done the Calavicci unthinkable and just driven away, but Al never got the chance.  It was the sight of a man who was probably not that much younger than himself stepping out onto the porch and descending the steps to start down the walk, that got him moving.  There was no turning back now.


Al opened the car door and emerged, closing it behind him and meeting the man halfway, his hand extended in greeting.  "Mr. Lockwood?  Al Calavicci."


Charles Lockwood's hand closed firmly around Al's and he pumped it as he said, "Mr. Calavicci, thank you for coming.  It's such a blessing to speak to someone who knew Howie."


"Please... call me Al," was all he could think to say in response.


Charles nodded and urged Al to extend the same courtesy to him as he led him back up the walk toward the house.  "My daughter, Bonnie, and her husband drove in to be here.  I hope you don't mind."


Thinking of the letter Howie had written to his older sister, Al smiled and shook his head.  "No, I don't mind at all."


Once inside, he was greeted by Pauline Lockwood, from whom Howie must have gotten his green eyes and blond hair, though hers was now streaked with silver.  Ignoring his extended hand, Pauline drew him into an embrace before ushering him into the family room, where Howie's sister and brother-in-law were waiting.


Allowing his hostess to precede him into the family room, Al glanced around, liking the comfortable furnishings.  While well kept, everything looking polished and spotless, still it had a comfortable lived in look that appealed to him.  He decided that had he and Beth ever had a 'normal' life, this would have been the sort of home he could see himself in. He didn't have time to linger on where that thought could have led as Bonnie Campbell turned at the sound of her parents and their guest entering and smiled brightly.  For the second time in less than five minutes, Al's offered hand was brushed aside as Howie's sister embraced him as warmly as her mother had. 


Jason Campbell grinned at Al and shook his hand.  "It's something you get used to if you’re around the Lockwood women very long." 


On that note of laughter, Pauline urged everyone to sit, making sure Al was comfortable before taking a seat on the couch that was adjacent to the chair where Al sat.  The calm expression on her face was a contrast to the anticipation in her green eyes as she, and her family, gave Al their attention.  Al cleared his throat lightly but before he could begin, Bonnie asked, "Mom said that you had met Howie?"


"Yes," Al said, moistening his lips before elaborating.  "It was on a mission trip several years ago.  Before..."


"Before he went to Sudan," finished Bonnie, gently.  "Which trip was it?  Guatemala?"


Al nodded.  "He was quite a guy."  He winced internally at what he'd just said.  What a way to sum up Howie Lockwood.  Al wanted to melt into the chair and disappear, but Howie's family smiled warmly at him.


"He was," agreed Bonnie.


Sensing that their guest seemed a bit tense, Pauline turned to him. "Mr. Calavicci...."


"Please, call me Al," he again said with a smile.


"All right... Al, would you care for something to drink? I've got some fresh lemonade in the fridge," Pauline offered.  At Al's assurance that he would appreciate a glass, she excused herself, pausing only to warn, "Now don't you say anything 'til I get back. I don't want to miss a thing."


Al's heart sank a bit at that, but as it turned out, the meeting that he had been dreading since he'd telephoned the Lockwoods, now caught him totally off guard thanks to the genial and understanding family that Howie had left behind.  He had only taken a few swallows of the lemonade when he got a feeling between his shoulder blades almost like someone was behind him, a feeling that told him it was time to keep his promise.


Setting his glass on the coaster on the end table beside the chair, he looked around at Howie's family.  "When I met your... Howie in Guatemala," he began. "I was on a business trip for the company I work for." He licked his lips and continued. "During the trip I had a few days off and did a little sightseeing around where I was staying. One of those little excursions was to visit the site where a group from a couple of churches in Florida..."


"There were six men from our church, including Howie and Charles, in that group," Pauline interrupted, only to receive a light husbandly admonishment of a pat on her knee.  Al pursed his lips to keep from chuckling but then Bonnie wisecracked and he couldn't help laughing a bit along with them at Pauline's reaction. That past, he continued with recalling the meeting that had never happened between he and Howie Lockwood.


Though his details were just vague enough to spare him from being caught in the lie, his research had been specific enough to convince the family.  Fortunately, Charles Lockwood had gone with half of the group to another part of the city during the time Al claimed to have spent with Howie, so he was able to tell the story he wished could have been true without contradiction.  The only comment Charles made was, "That trip was during Howie's Christmas break in '97.  We noticed he often prayed for someone named Al from time to time after that.  You made an impact on him."


Knowing that Howie had undoubtedly been praying for him since returning to his own time in September of 1997, Al picked up the glass of lemonade and swallowed hard to force down the lump that had formed in his throat.  "He... he came to mean a lot to me, too," Al said simply.  "It was only recently that I... learned that he'd gone to minister to the people in Sudan."


"He was so excited about going," said Pauline, now dabbing at her eyes.  "His letters were so full of detail.  I thought, anyway," she added, and Al knew that Howie must have withheld the information about how the militia had reacted to his presence in order to spare his mother worry.


Charles patted his wife's shoulder in a comforting manner.  "When the letters stopped coming, we knew what had happened... even before the representatives from the Mission Board came to pray with us."


Al nodded, feeling the time was right to work towards revealing the existence of the letters.  "I have a friend who went as part of the rebuilding team..."


"To Howie's village?" breathed Bonnie, and Jason slipped an arm around her as Al nodded.


"Let me show you something, Al," Pauline said, taking a steeling breath as she rose and crossed the room to a framed photograph.  "Your friend and the others on the team... I can't tell you how much of a comfort it was to us to know that what Howie started was being continued."  She handed Al the photograph, and a smile spread across his face at the sight of James Matunde, slightly more mature looking, standing arm in arm with a fat white man, both of them holding a Bible and standing in the village in front of a small newly-constructed building whose plaque read, "Lockwood Memorial Learning Center."


Al returned the photograph to Pauline, saying, "It looks like the work is going well."


Nodding, she said, "I'm sorry for interrupting," as she returned the picture to the mantel.


Shaking his head, Al picked up with his story where he'd left off.  "I apologize for the delay in getting these to you.  My friend had collected what appeared to be miscellaneous papers before they left, and only recently realized that these were among them."  He reached inside his jacket and withdrew the letters.  "Somehow..."  He stopped to clear his throat, closing his eyes for a moment before opening them and looking each member of Howie's family in the eye when he continued.  "Somehow Howie knew he was going to die, and he wrote letters to you."  He passed the letters to them.


For a moment, the recipients just looked at the letters before opening them and unfolding the last missive their son and brother would ever write to them.  If he hadn’t seen tears beginning to fall, or husband and wife clinging to each other, or Bonnie seeking the comfort of her own husband's arms, Al would have been worried.  He didn't attempt to include himself in this last bit of mourning and closure, instead sitting quietly.  It was Bonnie who finally seemed to reach and cross, even just a step, a threshold of acceptance.  It was that acceptance which brought  her to her feet and then to cross to Al who had risen as well, mirroring the young woman's actions.  Once again he found himself enfolded in her arms, only this time he returned the clinging hug as she whispered, her voice thick with emotion, "Thank you, Al. You'll never know how much this means to me... to us."


Similar embraces came from Pauline and, to Al's surprise, from Charles Lockwood, himself.  When Howie's father at last stepped back from the embrace, he placed a hand on Al's shoulder, looking directly into his eyes.  "I don't know if you have children, Al," he began.


"I do," Al said softly. "Five beautiful daughters," then allowed Charles to finish.


"Then as a father, I know you can understand when I say, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for this last small part of Howie."  The emotions swirling inside him threatened to overwhelm him and he reached to wipe at the dampness in his eyes.  "I'm sorry..." he began but Al brushed the apology aside.


"No need to be," he told Charles Lockwood. "Howie was a good man.  You should be proud of him. If...." Al had to swallow twice before he could get past the largest lump of all in his throat. "If I’d had a son like Howie, I'd be as proud of him and how he lived his life as you are."


The emotions of the moment could have crowded in on them but after a short while more, Al recognized that it was time to say his goodbyes.  It was a feigned gesture he'd used countless times and it served well now, as it appeared a thought had come to him and he checked his watch. Again he rose to his feet, this time apologizing, "I wish I could stay longer, but my flight leaves in a couple of hours and I've got to get back to the hotel and collect my things."  Seeing everyone get up, he said, "I'm glad that I got to meet you all." His eyes went to each person in the room in turn, returning to Howie's parents.


They all responded in kind, moving to follow Al as he retraced his steps to the front door, Pauline Lockwood walking beside him.  As they stepped out on to the porch, Al paused and turned to her, taking her hands and holding them gently as he looked into her eyes. "I just wish we could have met under happier circumstances."


Pauline pressed her lips together and nodded, blinking against the sorrow brimming against her lower lashes.  Behind her, Charles squeezed her shoulder lovingly and bracingly.


"Thank you," she said.  “For bringing his letters to us.”


Feeling the words were inadequate, Al gave her a small smile as he said, "You're welcome.  It's the least I could do for Howie."


Tears broke free from Pauline's eyes at Al's comment, and Charles changed his grip to a sideways hug.  Tugging her hands free, Pauline wiped at her eyes before apologizing.


"I'm... sorry," she whispered then gave a small apologetic sort of laugh to try and stave off the powerful emotions welling up inside her.  Meeting their guest's eyes again, Pauline blinked furiously against the tears as she told him, "It's just..." she swallowed, "it's just that I always believed that one day Howie would... would come home."  The feel of her husband's hands as he reached to take her by the shoulders to turn her to face him became her strength as Charles said, his own voice a little husky, "Honey, he is home," then gathered her into his arms, comforting her.


Moved by the sight of the couple whose grief mingled with their faith, Al looked to the rental car parked on the street and took a shaky breath before he could give in to his own grief that was bubbling up.  He couldn't break down now... not in front of Howie's family.  It took a moment for him to feel that he'd regained control enough to look back.  Bonnie and Jason hadn't taken their eyes off Charles and Pauline, who were just straightening up, Pauline taking deep breaths to compose herself before reaching to embrace Al once more.


Al gently rebuffed her apologies.  "You have nothing to apologize for," he assured her as he smiled at her then stepped back and turned and went down the steps.  He was hoping that the good-byes would end there on the porch, but it wasn't to be, as Howie's family followed him out to the car.


"Next time you're in town, be sure and drop by for a visit," Pauline called out.  "And I won't take no for an answer, either, Al."


Al nodded and gave his promise and then with a glance in the rearview mirror, pulled away from the curb and drove away.


As he made his way out of the subdivision, Al reflected on the time he'd spent with the Lockwoods and the Campbells.  Howie's family was as warm and genuine as the young man had been--that had come as no surprise to Al.  Their love and faith gave them a strength that amazed him, and he was touched by the way they were so concerned for the people Howie had worked with in Sudan.


The road merged into a larger expressway and Al noticed a sign informing motorists that Quiet Pines Cemetery was accessible from the next exit.  That was where Howie had been buried.  For a moment Al considered taking the exit and visiting the grave, but the idea was too painful to him, his emotions too near the surface after his encounter with Howie's parents and sister, and Al continued on his drive back to the Hilton.


Though he drove past the exit, it didn't prevent his gaze from being drawn to the large tasteful billboard for that cemetery for a moment.  Forcing himself to concentrate on his driving, Al looked straight ahead, but it couldn't erase what he knew - before he boarded the return flight to New Mexico, he was going to have a 'face to face' with the final resting place of a young man who had in the space of a little less than twenty-four hours, etched himself permanently in his heart and mind.


The rest of the drive back to the hotel was uneventful, and he turned over the car to the valet.  As the valet slid behind the wheel to park the car, Al got his attention. "I may be calling for it a little later." He smiled at the young man's courteous response then entered the hotel and went up to his room.  Closing the door, he stood for a moment and just listened and it occurred to him as it had countless times in the past when he was away from his family how empty and lonely a hotel room could be. 


Shrugging out of his jacket and loosening his tie, Al found his cell phone and dialed.  It rang twice and then, just hearing Beth's voice say, "Hello," was the comfort he needed at this moment.


"Hi, Babe," he said as he sank into the desk chair and stretched his feet out in front of him.


"How did it go?" Beth instinctively asked. 


Al smiled at her tone, knowing the forced easiness masked concern.  "The Lockwoods are real special people, real special.  I know now why Howie turned out the way he did."  He turned in the chair so he could look out the sliding glass door to his right and surveyed the panoramic view of Daytona.  "The mission trip story worked, but it was hairy for a second there.  Charles Lockwood was on the same trip, but fortunately he was working with another group when I was supposed to have 'met' Howie. They didn't question it because..."  He stopped for a moment, and when he resumed, the timbre of his voice changed ever so slightly.  "Because they said after that trip, they noticed that Howie often prayed for me."  Al closed his eyes and didn't say anything for a moment, but Beth didn't break the silence.  Taking a shaky breath, he said, "Beth... it was September, 1997 when Sam Leaped into Howie the first time.  The Guatemala mission trip was over Christmas break of that year... and..."


"He remembered you," she finished softly for him. 


Another silence ensued because just hearing Beth say aloud what he hadn't been able to acknowledge in that manner to himself, caused an ache in Al's throat that couldn't be spoken through. All he could do was sit there, his eyes closed, feeling the burning behind his eyelids and nod silently as if Beth could hear such a response.  When at last he could swallow and speak he just whispered shakily, "Yeah.  He remembered me."


Beth wisely waited another moment before asking, "Did you go to visit his grave?"


Al hesitated before answering.  "I passed the exit for the cemetery, but..."  He stopped for a second, and exhaled roughly.  "But I couldn't do it.  Giving his family those letters, it was..."


Once again, his beloved wife spoke his thoughts for him, "It was like losing the last little connection you had to him?"


"Yeah."  He thought for a moment and added, "I guess... as long as I was hanging on to those letters, it wasn't really final."


Through Al's recollection of Howie as well as the few times the young man had come up in their conversations following that first leap, Beth had developed a bit of a fondness for him, which only intensified after her own experiences with him.  But now, helping her darling through this difficult time of final closure for him and his apparent... love was the only word that felt right... for Howie Lockwood, almost as if he had been their own son, Beth realized that she too loved Howie.  But not even for the sake of the closure that her beloved husband needed would she push or hurry him.


“You know you don’t have to do it this time,” she suggested gently.  Recalling one of her last conversations with their youngest daughter, she took inspiration from it to offer him a way to postpone the painful outing, even frame it within a cheerier context.  “You know Christa’s taking those summer classes and she wants the two of you to go to that NASCAR race next month.  Daytona’s only an hour or so from her school.”


“The Pepsi 400,” said Al, a tiny smile making a brief appearance on his face.  Bless her heart, Christa loved the same things he did, even if her body only allowed her to enjoy most of them as a spectator.


Beth’s voice was soft as she pointed out, “You could pay your respects then.”  Even as she presented the choice to him, she knew he wouldn’t take it.


"No.  I can't leave here without doing it.  It wouldn't be right."  He got to his feet and opened the sliding glass door, stepping out onto the balcony to continue his conversation.


"Maybe after a good night's sleep?"


Al chuckled, only a slight tinge of bitterness to it, "Like I ever have one of those when I'm away from... the Project?"  He knew that Beth knew what he meant was 'when I'm away from you.'  "No," he continued, "I'm going to do it.  I just couldn't face it right after seeing his parents.  I don't even want to think about what it would be like to lose one of the girls."


"Honey," Beth said lightly, "don't go there.  And for heaven's sake, please don't call any of the girls, especially Christa, when you hang up with me.  She's writing a major paper and you know she thinks the worst when you call her just to tell her how much you love her."


Al almost protested the last comment, but after thinking back to the last couple of impromptu calls he'd placed to their youngest daughter -one of them about ten o'clock at night, New Mexico time- he had to agree. "Okay," he conceded, the lightness of Beth's tone coupling with his thoughts to pick up his spirits a bit. "But as soon as I get home, I'm going to call her," he said, a smile actually crossing his face. "So both of you better be prepared."  He laughed at her response. 


They talked for a few more minutes, before he noticed the angle of the afternoon sun. The reason he'd called her resettled over his shoulders and he stepped back into his room and closed the sliding door.  "Listen," he said quietly. "I think I'm going to get an early dinner and... and see what happens from there."  He listened to Beth's reply, nodding, and when she paused, said, "Okay.  I'll call you before I turn in." He hesitated then turned to look out the sliding glass door at the view and said, his tone quiet yet fervent, "I love you, honey."


"I love you, too, Babe.  I'll talk to you later. Now go get some dinner. Bye."


"Bye," he replied then listened to the connection cut off before closing his cell phone. Putting it on the nightstand beside the bed, Al decided to freshen up.  Ten minutes later, he slipped his jacket on again and made his way down to the lobby.


Al's heels clicked on the tiled floor as he walked out of the elevator into the elegant lobby.  Striding past the potted palm trees and fountains he headed for the restaurant he'd eaten lunch at earlier, but just as he approached the menu posted behind a glass case, he paused.  His face was reflected back at him and under the guise of reading the menu, he looked at his reflection for a moment.  Coming to a decision, Al turned and headed for the concierge, where he requested that his car be brought around again.


While the concierge phoned the garage for his car, Al went outside to wait for it.  While he waited, he realized something and wasted no time in pulling his cell phone out again and dialing another New Mexico number.


"Al?" Dominic Lofton asked, confused.  He'd known only that Al was taking care of a personal errand, not the details, and he was a bit surprised to be receiving a phone call from the Admiral.


"I have a strange favor to ask, Dom," Al said, making his request.  He was extremely grateful that Dom didn't question, but simply entered the information in the computer and gave Al the location of Howie Lockwood's grave.  "Thanks," Al told him.  "I'll see you tomorrow."  He disconnected the call before Dom could say anything further.


Glancing around as he replaced the phone in his pocket, Al tipped the valet and once more got behind the wheel of the Chrysler New Yorker and pulled out into traffic.  This time he didn't need to ask directions, this time he knew where he was going.


Twenty minutes later, he saw the exit he needed and made the transition from freeway to ground level without incident.  As he drew closer to his destination, Al found his thoughts becoming introspective and even a little somber again.  He didn't like cemeteries, but that dislike was far outweighed by the love and respect he had acquired for Howie Lockwood.


Traveling down one last street, Al made a left turn and almost immediately was approaching the entrance to Quiet Pines Cemetery.

As he drove through the open gates, he noted a sign stating the cemetery’s hours as 7:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.  Driving slowly, he glanced at his watch. 5:18. There was still time to say good-bye.


Heading to the appropriate section of the cemetery, Al thought over the visit with Howie's family.  He knew he shouldn't have been surprised at how quickly he'd both been accepted by them and accepted them, given how he and Howie had bonded on their first encounter.  He felt now that he had an idea of how the young man had turned out so remarkable.  Arriving at the spot, Al stopped the car and got out, surveying the expanse of graves with anticipation and dread in his stomach.


As he made his way among the neat rows of well-kept graves, Al thought back to the Leap that had landed Sam in Disney World. Even though a hologram then, he had enjoyed the idyllic warmth of the late summer sunshine, so similar to this particular day. It also drew back to him thoughts of the burning heat of that April day when Howie had died. As the somberness that had begun to creep up on him increased as he looked up and saw a certain gravestone ahead, the sound of a child's laughter filled the air.  Pausing, Al looked around, expecting to see a family perhaps come, as he had, to pay their respects at the final resting place of a loved one.  But he saw no one and after a moment, Al made his way the last few yards in silence.  In reverence for where he was, he didn't say anything at first as he went to stand at the foot of Howie Lockwood's grave and looked at the simple dark gray granite headstone on which was carved:


Howie James Lockwood

Born: January 11, 1976 - Died: April 26, 2004

28 years, 3 months lived to the glory of God


“I have entered His gates with thanksgiving in my heart,

and into His presence with joy."


Al could have handled a simple epitaph without any problem.  But just as he remembered the unique individual who had been Howie Lockwood, so it was that the unique inscription broke through Al's resolve, allowing him to express his feelings to the young man who had made an impression on his heart that would never fade.


He fought the tears, but there was no stopping them from trickling down his cheeks as he went to stand and then, not caring who saw, to kneel beside the grave stone, resting his hand lightly on it.  He gazed down at the smooth grass, even reached down to touch it a moment. Forgetting the time and everything else, Al slowly sank down to sit on his heels then leaned his forehead against the stone and wept for his friend.  He wept for the loss of one called home too soon, for a young man who’d had so much before him. He cried like no one, not even Beth, had ever seen.


"Why?" he asked aloud, the single syllable carrying the weight of a million questions that had haunted him for the past month.  Without concern for his slacks, Al remained on his knees beside the young man's grave, his body shaking with the force of his grief.  "There was so much you had before you... so many lives you could have touched."


Such was his grief that for several moments, all Al could hear echoing inside him was that one universal question of “Why?", the one question that had an infinite number of answers that could come because of it. Bowing his head, he brought a hand up to his face, his sobs wrenching free. After a moment his other hand moved from the gravestone and he hid his face in his palms, but his tears weren't enough.


Lifting his head slowly, he turned his eyes again to his young friend's name carved in granite.  "Why, Howie?" he pleaded softly.  "Why didn't you follow your dreams?  You could've made so many people laugh.  Given them a few minutes to forget about their problems."


**I helped many find joy in God, and not for only a few minutes, Al, but for eternity.**


"But your dreams..." Al whispered back to what he was certain was the memory of Howie Lockwood reminding him. Yet as the words passed his lips, he knew he was making empty protests to the memory of the young man he had come to feel so close to.  His friend... his surrogate son... even in the midst of the ache and wishes for the path not taken, Al knew what Howie would have said.


**Honoring God... that was always my dream.  You know that.**


Through the blurriness Al looked again at the tombstone, at the inscription he was positive had been placed there at Pauline's insistence.  "28 years, 3 months lived to the glory of God."


He didn't know why he did it, but as Al reached a finger to lightly trace over each letter of Howie's name, it seemed that some of the tearing grief began to ease. With each letter, he recalled another of the few memories that were all he had of one certain Visitor to the Waiting Room.  When he finished outlining the 'd' in Lockwood, Al sat back on his heels, staring at the tombstone and then let his gaze wander out across the quiet vista that was the well kept cemetery and, in the distance, a bit of the city that Howie had called home.  A deep, quivering sigh welled up and escaped his lips and he looked again at the marker. "We didn't have near enough time to get to know each other," he said softly. "But I'm so glad that our paths crossed, kid." Slowly he lifted a hand and placed it lightly on the side of the tombstone.


The coolness of the granite seeped into his palm, and Al closed his eyes.  Opening them again, he smiled and gave a small laugh.


"I can't believe I'm admitting this," he said.  "But after Sam Leaped into you the first time, Beth and I kinda hoped your path would cross with one of our daughters."  He chuckled wryly and added, "Okay... so I was hoping more than she was."


After a moment, he sighed.  "Oh, Howie.  I wish..."  He trailed off.  As many questions as had been summed up in the simple question of why, so could as many hopes and wishes be summed up in those two words.  He dropped his head against his arm, still braced against the side of the gravestone.  When he raised it, he noticed the time on his watch. 


"Once again, not near enough time," said Al quietly, as he got to his feet and mopped at his face with his handkerchief.  "But I don't want to get locked in here."


A clear picture of Howie's infectious grin came to him at that moment, and Al chuckled sort of wryly.  "I came to... see you," he admitted to that bright memory. "But not even for you, kiddo, will I spend a night locked in a cemetery."


Moving to stand at the foot of the well-tended grave, Al clasped his hands in front of himself and just stared at the stone as if to memorize every nuance of what was carved on it. But now it was like he could almost hear the minutes slipping by, and so he bowed his head, said a prayer for Howie then crossed himself and started to move away, then paused and turned back.


It was the first genuine smile that had crossed Al's face in the last month as he looked down at the grass near the headstone and said, "I thought you might like to know that James is still going strong, kid. He's still walking." He paused, started to leave, and paused again just long enough to look back one last time and say, "Don't know when it'll be, but now I'm holding you to your promise. You know... to meet me at the gate."  It seemed an odd moment to grin but the grin came anyway as Al could just 'see' Howie's infectious grin. 


His step somewhat lighter now, Al gave his friend's memory a cocky salute and said, "See you later, pal," then turned and made his way back to the car. Getting into the car, Al started the engine and put it in gear, took one last look around at the peaceful area then drove out of the cemetery and blended with the traffic.


He drove in silence for a while, and then felt a nudge to turn on the radio.  He brushed it off, passing a slow car, but as he glanced into the rearview mirror before merging back into the lane, the nudge came again.  Al reached across to turn on the radio station.  The soft rock station was playing the end of an N’Sync song, and Al was just about to switch off the radio again when he had to slam on his brakes.  Traffic had come to an abrupt halt.


“Must be an accident up ahead,” muttered Al, as he settled back, creeping slowly forward an inch at a time with traffic.  It was only when a brief station ID played that Al realized he hadn’t turned off the radio. 


The delicate and haunting sound of a piano filled the car, and then a mellow voice began to slowly sing.


I can only imagine what it will be like

When I walk by your side

I can only imagine what my eyes will see

When your face is before me

I can only imagine


The melody was pleasing, and Al felt his irritation at the traffic ease up a bit.  As the song swelled slightly into the chorus, it caught his attention and he sat up a bit straighter in the driver’s seat.


Surrounded by your glory

What will my heart feel

Will I dance for you, Jesus

Or in awe of you be still

Will I stand in your presence

Or to my knees will I fall

Will I sing hallelujah

Will I be able to speak at all

I can only imagine

I can only imagine


Softly, the delicate piano music filled his ears again, and Al felt his eyes brim with tears.  He was suddenly grateful for the traffic jam as his thoughts were drawn to Howie, and his vision blurred.  Drums and guitar now joined the piano, and the richness of the addition buoyed Al in the midst of his returned weeping as the joy inherent in the singing and the lyrics—in the imagery—surrounded him.


I can only imagine when that day comes

And I find myself standing in the Son

I can only imagine when all I will do

Is forever, forever worship you

I can only imagine, yeah

I can only imagine


When the song returned to the chorus again, strings now contributing to the power of the music, the tears streaming down his cheeks couldn’t drown out the smile on his face as he now imagined Howie in Heaven.  He could picture Howie in each of the postures described by the singer, and as the chorus was repeated one final time, a vision of Howie’s face filled with indescribable joy came to his mind.  In the final moments of the song, as the singer quietly finished with “I can only imagine when all I will do is forever, forever worship you… I can only imagine,” Al felt truly comforted for the first time since Howie’s death.


As the traffic continued to inch along, a little faster now, Al felt a sense of peace beginning somewhere inside him.  It was a reassurance that let him know that it was okay for him to mourn the loss of his friend, and even more, it was a promise to him that it was okay to let that precious memory take its place in his heart and to move on ahead with his life.  Still, letting go wasn't easy but that reassurance welled up and covered the hurting areas, even as the memory of Howie reminded him, "I'm just a memory away, Al."


"Yeah," Al said softly, letting a smile creep across his face. "You're right."  At that moment, he saw the car ahead of him speed up and he gave his attention to his driving as he drove carefully past the accident that he'd suspected as the culprit for the slow down.  He barely glanced at the police officer standing in the middle of the next lane and waving the traffic by, calling out in a loud, clear voice, "Come on, keep moving. Keep moving."  Al smiled to himself and he nodded as he increased his speed to keep up with the traffic now flowing at a more normal rate of speed, as he recalled and took heart in the very last line of the letter Howie Lockwood had written to him.


"Time to go on," he said, his voice steady and his spirits lifting.  He heaved a deep sigh and felt the peace spreading a bit more inside and as it did, he thought of Beth.  Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his cell phone, flicked it open, hit the recall button he knew by heart and put it to his ear. It rang twice.




A warm feeling spread through Al as he answered, "Hi. Just thought I'd let you know I'm heading home."


"Home?"  Beth's voice was confused and concerned.  "Your flight isn't until the morning, hon."


"I know," he said.  "But I'm ready to come home now.  Have Ziggy reschedule my ticket."


Beth paused a moment, then softly said, "You went." 


"Yeah," Al said, smiling as he carefully merged into the right lane and then down the exit ramp.  "Everything's okay." As he drove along the streets, keeping a sharp eye on the traffic around him, Al heard Beth ask, "Are you sure you're okay?"


"Never better," he said as he approached the wide driveway in front of the Hilton.  "It's time to get back to work."






“I Can Only Imagine” performed by MercyMe, Words & Music by Bart Millard, © 1999 Simpleville Music


A Message from the Authors:
While the events in this story are fictional, they are by no means made-up. Christians around the world, particularly in Communist and Muslim countries, face persecution on a scale not fully appreciated by those of us who live in countries with freedom of religion--especially America, where the worst anyone might face is being told to “shut up.” Imprisonment, torture, and death are realities for millions of Christians around the world. If you would like to learn more, the authors recommend the website



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