Episode 609

I'll Be Home For Christmas II

by: A. J. Burfield

printer friendly version

PREVIOUSLY ON QUANTUM LEAP

 

 Sam has leaped into Janeen Perry, a 20-odd year old nurse at Edgemoor County Mental Hospital outside New York City on December 17, 1953. He finds the County Mental Hospital system under staffed and both doctors and nurses are over worked. Over time is expected, and Janeen regularly does her share. Sam discovers that Janeen lives by herself (to his relief) in the nearby small town, Medfield, in a cozy, friendly apartment complex. He discovers that his elderly next door neighbor, Miss Emma Pothier, is agoraphobic and canít recall the last time she left her warm and homey apartment.

Al realizes immediately that Sam has leaped into an area and time too close to his heart. In less than 48 hours his sister, Trudy, dies in the very same hospital system. Al remembers a nurse telling him that she had died from pneumonia, and had been cremated. A sullen Al assumed she died at Dearborn Mental Hospital, about 20 miles from where Janeen Perry worked.

While Al wrestles with his conscious about interfering with this leap to save Trudy, Ziggy informs Dr. Beeks of Alís past history of trying to influence leaps connected to his personal life. Dr. Beeks invokes her privilege as the Head Physician of the Project and pulls Al from the job of Observer, moving Samís daughter, Dr. Sammy Jo Fuller, into the position instead. 

To add to the tension, Senator Weitzmanís aide, Dan Wringer, arrives at the Project for a year-end inspection, hoping to cut the Project and save money so the Senator can push for a tax decrease and insure reelection. Dr. Beeks fears for the future of the Project if Al makes a move to change his personal history and Wringer gets wind of the plan.

Meanwhile, a blizzard is moving into Samís time and Ziggy calculates that he is there to save Miss Emmaís life when her apartment catches fire during the storm. Unlike Janeen in the original history, Sam manages to leave work in time, but on his drive home discovers an ambulance has crashed into a ditch. Sam stops to help the occupants and Al manages to worm his way into the Imaging Chamber once again and joins Sam at the scene after making peace with himself and putting his faith into God, Time, Fate or Whomever to decide Trudyís future. Just as the blizzard arrives, who should found to be in the back of the doomed ambulance but Trudy herself, unconscious and sick. 

Can Sam save both women in the fury of the storm? And will Al doom the Project because of his actions?
 
 


    
PART ONE

 

Project Quantum Leap

Stallionís Gate, New Mexico

December 24, 2000

 

"Uh oh," Gooshie exclaimed, his hands flying over the console of the control board.

"Did he say what I think he just said?" Tina commented, also surprised.

"Yeah, and right in front of Wringer. This isnít good." Gooshie could hear Alís voice pleading for Sam to help him, and knew he had to notify Dr. Beeks. The preverbal shit was about to hit the fan and she was their last chance to head off disaster. "Ziggy, inform Dr. Beeks of this event. I think she needs to be here."

In the Imaging Chamber Wringerís eyes were fixed on Admiral Calavicci, shocked. The Admiral was on his knees trying to embrace some invisible thing, the handlink squealing and flashing in the dimness of the Chamber. Wringer was a skeptic on the validity of this Project to start with, and this turn of events made him immediately re think his position. The Admiral wasnít one to let himself go like this; either he was having a complete mental breakdown, or he was really seeing something happening in another reality. Knowing the Admiral from his research, the former idea was unlikely. That left the latter.

"Whatís happening?" Wringer demanded out loud. "Admiral! What is going on?"

Al didnít acknowledge him at all, and was pleading with the unseen Dr. Beckett to help him with someone else. Trudy. Thatís what heíd said. He frowned and concentrated on the scene playing out in front of him, trying to hear over the squealing handlink.

"Look! Sheís unconscious! Come on, Sam! Get back here!" Alís tone wasnít quite hysterical, and with each passing second he became more focused on his target, his demeanor becoming typical of a military officer handling a perceived crisis. His voice dropped, and Wringer didnít miss the aborted sideways glance in his direction. "This is why youíre here, Sam. To save her. Come on, get back here!" There was a pause where he seemed to be listening to a response as he focused at a point on the floor. "Youíre here to save Trudy. Canít you see that?"

As the handlink started squealing again, Wringer looked up to the ceiling and shouted, "Ziggy, who is Trudy?"

The handlink immediately became silent, and there were several seconds of quiet. Al didnít seem to notice. 

"Trudy was Admiral Calavicciís sister," Ziggy responded matter-of-factly.

"Was?" Wringer exclaimed, straightening, and pointing at the exit. "Stop this right now and open this door. Gooshie! Open this door now!"

Gooshie and Tina looked at each other for a few seconds, both knowing this could be the beginning of the end and there was nothing they could do about it. Slowly, Gooshie powered down the Chamber and opened the door. Wringer stormed from the Chamber, his face livid and his mouth clamped shut. The Control Room door slid open and Dr. Beeks strode in, colliding with Wringer at the console.

"I will be in my quarters, Dr. Beeks, contacting Senator Weitzman and making my report. I do not want to be disturbed." Wringer met up with his assistant in the hallway, and marched off with a Marine guard in tow. 

Beeks watched him go with a stunned look, then turned slowly around to face Gooshie and Tina, who were fidgeting in place at the console. Before she could say anything, Al stepped from the Chamber and defiantly met her eyes. He then turned to Gooshie and said, "Ready the Imaging Chamber. Iím going back."

Gooshie shifted uncomfortably and looked at Beeks, who rescued the programmer. "Donít make me do this, Admiral," she said softly but firmly.

Alís jaw tightened and he said quietly, "I have to. You must understand, Verbena."

"I understand all too well, Al, but I canít let this continue." She faced the guard by the door. "The Admiral is medically unfit for duty. I am ordering him to his quarters for rest. Please escort him there where he will stay until further notice."

The Marine nodded and stepped forward, his eyes soft but his demeanor unquestionable. Al knew that if he refused to go, heíd be dragged from the room. Gooshie and Tina uncomfortably studied their shoes, but Verbena Beeks met his eyes squarely to convey her sorrow. 

Al quietly complied with a tight nod and the guard followed him from the room, the door sliding shut behind them.

As the pair walked down the hall Sammy Jo rushed from the elevator and up to Al. She glanced at the Marine, then back at Al, questions written all over her face.

"Itís all right, Sammy Jo," he said, patting her shoulder. "Go help Sam, will you? And keep me informed?"

She gave him a quick nod, and a quiet "sure" as the guard followed him down the hall. She watched their retreating backs for a few seconds, then rushed to the Control Room to get updated on what just happened.

 

 

 

Outskirts of Medfield, New York

December 18, 1953

 

Sam had covered the injured driver with a heavy coat he found on the floor of the cab and checked his vitals once more. He had been temporarily stunned by Alís demeanor concerning the passenger and then his abrupt departure. He had a lot of questions, but no one to direct them to, and couldnít recall the last time he felt so absolutely alone. Unable to reach the passenger from inside the cab, he crawled out the driver door and was shocked at the amount of snow already built up. He fought his way to the back and wrestled the back hatch open. He couldnít feel his fingers anymore and his nose burned as he fell into the open back onto the gurney and winced.

His thick fingers fumbled with the gurney strap and the freed patient slumped back into the corner. Sam pushed the gurney aside and straightened out the blanket on the young woman. Al had obviously known her. As he checked her vitals he studied her lax face and recognized the telltale signs of Down's Syndrome. She appeared to be somewhere in her early teens, with wavy brown hair. He cursed his Swiss cheesed memory for not being able to identify her and her importance to Al as he gave her a cursory physical. 

The gurney had saved her from any impact damage, but there was bruising around her waist from the restraining strap so Sam couldnít yet rule out internal damage. What concerned him the most was her breathing. Without a stethoscope he couldnít be sure, but he thought he heard the warning rawls of pneumonia in her lungs. She needed treatment soon, which is probably why she was on her way to Edgemoor. Dr. Beech was the on call doctor tonight.

The snow was falling heavily. The culvert was shielding them from the worst of the winds, but Sam could hear it whistling through the trees above. He had to act quickly, the future of Miss Emma also on his mind. This so-called simple leap had twisted into a nightmare.

Sam pulled off the mattress from the gurney to use as a backboard and sled. There were extra restraining straps hanging on the gurney, and he removed those, laying them under the mattress. He carefully maneuvered the girl onto the mattress, wrapped her in the blankets he found, and strapped her in. With the angle of the car, it was difficult to keep everything in place, but he finally managed. Snow had drifted inside the ambulance, but the exertion made Sam sweat under his heavy coat. He pushed, pulled and lifted the woman out of the ambulance into the new snow, then drug her up the slope to his car which was still idling on the road. His lungs burned with exertion. 

He had just hauled her to the side of the road when the sound of the Imaging Room door made his heart leap. He was so exhausted he felt his eyes start to tear up at the relief of some company. He quickly wiped them away, his fingers frigid on his face. He was on his hands and knees, shaking from the cold. A hologram couldnít help him, he realized, but at least he wasnít alone anymore.

"Oh, my God, Dr. Beckett, are you all right? Youíve got to get inside!" The realization that it wasnít Al speaking made him hesitate. "Dr. Beckett? Do you hear me?" 

"Fuller, right?" he gasped, un-strapping the girl and gathering her up in his arms.

"Yeah. I wish I could help you," she sounded frustrated. 

"So do I," he grunted, lifting the patient and opening the back door of the car with full hands. He placed her in the back seat, and checked her vitals again. Then he checked her head and found a lump in the back. "At least the car is warm. She needs medication." He warmed his hands over the vent for a moment and pulled on the gloves in his pocket. It didnít help much in this freezing wind. He closed the door and turned back to the ambulance, which was barely visible. "I canít see anything! I have to get one more person out!"

"Iíll guide you!" Sammy Jo yelled, tapping away on the link. In the meantime she had Ziggy plot out exact directions back to the apartment building. Sam would be driving blind in these conditions.

Sam slid back down the slope with the mattress and straps in tow, not sure they would even help. When he got back to the driver, he was moaning and rolling his head, dried blood now frozen on his forehead. Sam knew he had to hurry. "Hey! Can you hear me? Wake up!" He forced the door open and tried to get his arms under the manís armpits. The motion made the driver yell. "You have a broken arm! I know it hurts, but you have to help me. We need to get out of here!" 

The driver responded by weakly using his legs to push. It was a struggle, but Sam finally pulled him into the snow. He leaned over to zip up the manís jacket and caught the sour smell of alcohol on his breath. "Great," Sam mumbled. "Just great." He used the gurney straps to immobilize the broken arm, strapping it tight across the manís chest. "Come on," Sam said between chattering teeth. "Push with your legs."

"IÖ I... canít fffeel mmmy legs..." the man chattered back, Sam barely able to hear him because of the wind. The snow was falling thick, fast and with more force than before. He was constantly shaking his head to clear his eyes.

"Can you hear me Dr. Beckett? Come towards my voice!" Sam heard Dr. Fuller shouting from the roadside. He focused on her location and after what seemed like an eternity, got to the road.

"Stand up!" Sam shouted in the manís ear. His strength was about gone, and he couldnít feel his own feet or hands. Ice was forming on his eyelashes and around his nose.

The driver got to his knees and Sam pushed him towards the headlights, which were mere flickers of light in the storm.

"This way!" he heard a sweet voice call. Sam guided the crawling man to the driver door, pulled it open and half-pushed Ė half-lifted him into the front seat. The sudden warmth was just as shocking as the cold, and Sam started shaking uncontrollably as he shoved the man to the other end of the seat and collapsed behind the steering wheel. It was an effort to pull the door closed.

All the windows immediately fogged up. Sam felt his eyelashes melting and dripping down his face. He pulled the wet gloves off his shaking hands, shocked at the blanched color of his skin. Holding his hands up to the heating vents, he worked his fingers and looked around for Dr. Fuller. He found her in the back seat, looking at the girlís face.

"Is she going to be OK?" she asked.

"I donít know," Sam replied honestly. "Iíve got to get her dry and inside somewhere. She needs medication. What time is it?"

Dr. Fuller looked at the link. "Itís almost six oíclock." A worried look crossed her face, and she opened her mouth to say something, but didnít.

"I havenít forgotten about Miss Emma," Sam said. "You have to guide me out of here."

"I canít see my watch," the injured driver mumbled. "I canít see anything."

"Yeah, I know. Just sit there, then," Sam replied shortly, but gave him a worried glance as he slumped over. "Great. I donít know if he has a concussion or a hangover." He put the car in reverse, and slowly backed up, recalling how he had parked the car.

"You mean heís drunk?" Dr. Fuller said, incredulous, as she punched that information into the handlink.

"Smells like it, but I canít be sure."

Sammy Jo looked at the readout. "Thereís nothing here about an accident, but a lot of records are lost in that fire. Donít know what to tell you, Dr. Beckett." 

"Thatís OK. Help me, here, will ya?" He indicated the lack of visibility outside. The car headlights were practically useless.

Dr. Fuller tapped on the link, and blinked out of site, reappearing directly in front of the left headlight. She had her back to the car, and was studying the hand link closely. The snow was very deep, and Sam wondered how far they could get. Dr. Fuller waved at him to follow her and she started walking. He kept her in the beam of the headlight. 

It was an eerie sight. The glow from the handlink just illuminated her fuzzy outline with colored lights against the heavy snowfall. When the conditions were close to white out, she moved back until half her body stuck out from the hood of the car, giving her a weird, centaur look, but she kept walking and directing Sam. He couldnít see a thing except for her, glowing in the dark-and-whiteness. Soon she was just a ball of light to Sam. The wipers didnít do a whole lot of good clearing the snow from the windshield; the occasional blast of wind seemed to help the most. He knew that they were working against the clock, and felt his anxiety growing.

Sam could hear that the girlís breathing was getting worse. He reached back once and felt her face, alarmed at how warm she was. Fever. Reluctantly, he turned the heat down and pulled the blanket back from her chest. 

His fingers ached from gripping the steering wheel, and it was hard to focus his eyes. It seemed like hours since they had started driving. The injured man was in and out of consciousness, or thatís what Sam wanted to believe. There was no way to check the manís blood alcohol to be certain what his problem was. He didnít complain much, to Samís relief. 

Sam found that it was becoming more difficult to concentrate on Dr. Fuller. His eyelids felt droopy and it was getting harder to keep awake. ĎMust be from exhaustion,í he reasoned, then cracked the driver window open to let a blast of cold air hit him in the face. That helped, and he decided to keep it open a bit. He had no idea where he was, trusting Ziggy and Dr. Fuller to get him closer to help. 

He thought a moment about Dr. Fuller and cursed silently to himself for making that rule about delving information. She was so familiar, especially around the eyes and mouth. And her hairÖ he felt sure he knew her. He just couldnít recall where from right now. Maybe it would come to him; she certainly wasnít telling.

Samís realized his thoughts were drifting off again, and shook his head. He frowned, determined to keep his attention focused, when the car suddenly bumped into something and nosed up, grinding to a stop. Sam whacked his forehead on the unforgiving steering wheel and momentarily saw stars. Dr. Fuller was next to him in an instant, half of her body floating between him and the passenger.

"Are you OK? You got a little blood there," she pointed at his forehead. "Youíve run into a snow bank. Weíre just in town now and the wind blowing between the buildings has built up this, well, snow dune I guess youíd call it, in the street." She rubbed her eyes, which were tired from studying the handlink so closely for so long.

Sam touched his head, bringing away some blood on his fingertips. Something wasnít right here, he thought as he looked at his fingers. "My blood looks wrong," he said out loud. "Itís too red?" His lips felt numb.

That caught Dr. Fullerís attention. "And your voice is slurred. Dr. Beckett, turn off the engine. Thereís too much carbon monoxide in here!"

Samís thinking felt muzzy, and he fumbled with the keys, finally getting the engine turned off. Then he opened his window all the way, his lap instantly full of snow. That woke him up even more, and he felt his thought processes clearing. He immediately reached through the hologram and shook his passenger. "Hey! Wake up!" He reached over and rolled the window down a bit and the man grunted. Sam shook him again. "Breathe! Take in some air, pal!" 

The manís eyes fluttered open. "Close the window! Itís cold out there!" he slurred.

"Not a chance. Stay there." Sam crawled over the seat to the back and knelt on the floor, putting his hands on either side of the girlís face. She was still breathing, but they were ragged, forced breaths. Her cheeks were burning hot, and her limbs limp. He pulled a wet mitten from his pocket and dabbed her forehead. "I need to get her cooled down. How far to the apartment?"

"Not too far. Youíre about eight blocks away. Thereís no open businesses between here and there, so you need to go the full distance."

Samís mind was whirling. "What time is it?" he said quietly.

Dr. Fullerís eyes were big. "Itís just past seven. Ziggy has calculated that the fire starts closer to eight, so you may have some time. She used burn rates for the building materials and compared the Fire Department notes to similar instances. She feels her prediction is accurate."

"She would," Sam snorted. "Iíve got to get help. Hey!" He shook the manís shoulders. "You have to help out here. Are you awake?"

"Are you talking to me?" the man slurred slowly. 

"Yeah! Whatís your name?"

"Dane. Miller."

"Well, Dane, we need to get a plan going here," Sam checked Daneís eyes and found that the pupils were slow in dilating, and also found a lump just above the hairline of his forehead. He could have a concussion; that would explain his drowsiness. Or he could still be drunk. The smell of alcohol wasnít as strong anymore. "I have to go get help. You need to take care of her, OK? I think you have enough blankets, but donít turn on the heater, you hear me? Dane?"

"Right," he struggled to sit up, groaning at the pain in his arm. "Yeah, I heard. No heater."

Dane was more alert now that the car had aired out. "Make sure the girl doesnít get chilled. Can you do that?"

"Yeah. Sure. My head hurts."

"I bet it does. Iím keeping the windows cracked just a little for air. Iíll be back."

"Yeah, OK," the young man rubbed his eyes with his good hand, and appeared to be making a real effort to wake up and pay attention. "OK," he said a little more clearly. "Go."

Sam gave him one last look over, then caught Dr. Fullerís eye and nodded to the door. He had to use his legs to force the door open in the snow bank, and discovered it was a bit of a drop to the ground. He forced the door closed after falling thigh deep into fresh snow, gritting his teeth against the coldness on his legs. His muscles also felt wobbly from exertion.

"Wearing a dress in a snowstorm is about the stupidestÖ.." he didnít even finish his sentence because his attention was drawn to fighting his way through the snow. Dr. Fuller was a multicolored glow in the storm, and Sam kept his focus on her as he struggled to what must have been a sidewalk. He turned to look at the car, but it was all white everywhere he looked. The snow was falling so heavily he could less than a foot in front of him. The only thing he felt was the cold wind against his cheeks and legs and the shivering of his tired body. "Letís go!" he hollered.

The glowing ball that was Dr. Fuller started moving off and Sam struggled to follow. It was slow but steady travel. Without the hologram as a guide, he would be lost in an instant. 

Sammy Jo found this to be a nerve-wracking job. Her eyes were stinging from concentration. The handlink provided precise measurements of the street and where they were, but she couldnít see anything, either. Gooshie fiddled with the program and was using a kind of sonar through the handlink to sound out where the buildings were then cross referenced the information to the maps. Sammy Jo just wanted to hand the link to Dr. Beckett and get a cappuccino. Better yet, a hot, mulled wine. She shook her head at the thoughts, blaming it on fatigue due to concentrating on this tiny display. A wave of guilt came over her when she looked back at her father struggling through the snow. He was the one who was really suffering! 

Finally they reached the entryway to the apartment building. Sam kept one hand on the building and felt his was in to the center court. He knew what it looked like in his head, but right now it was nothing but white snow and black night. Dr. Fuller had stopped next to the stairs, and Sam started to pull himself up. 

"TtÖ time!" he gasped, his body aching.

"Itís almost 7:45. You can make it!"

"CcÖ ccenter on hher..." Samís lips felt frozen, so he waved up the stairs.

"Sure thing. Hold on." She tapped on the link. "Gooshie! Center me on Emma! Hang in there, Dr. Beckett!" She blinked out of sight and Sam was engulfed in billowing white as he felt his way up the frozen stairs. 

Sammy Jo popped into Emma Pothierís apartment and complete darkness. "The powerís out," she said out loud to Gooshie as she rubbed her eyes. After being in the whiteness for so long it took several seconds her eyes to adjust to the darkness. There was a small glow across what she recalled was the living room, and stepped towards it. A stubby candle flickered on the kitchen counter, but Miss Emma was not around. "Hello?" she called for her own comfort, knowing she couldnít be heard, then jumped back, startled, when Miss Emma popped up from behind the counter, oblivious to the holographic visitor. Apparently she had dropped something on the floor, and had just picked it up. 

Sammy Jo saw that she had on a robe along with a blanket draped over her shoulders. The blanket dangled down from her arms, and the Observer instantly knew what caused the fire as Miss Emma reached over the candle to put something on the counter.

"Oh, no," Sammy Jo uttered, completely unable to stop what she was witnessing. She couldnít help but scream, "NO! Donít!í

The dangling blanket draped over the candle and burst into flames along with the sleeve to her robe. Miss Emma stepped back, shocked and threw off the flaming blanket, which landed on the sink, igniting the curtains. The old woman batted at her arm, a gurgling sound of fear in her throat, and turned in circles trying to put out the growing flames. Her arm was totally engulfed.

"Oh, God! Gooshie!" Her fingers flew over the keys and found her self instantly next to Sam, who had just topped the stairs. He was on his hands and knees, feeling for the wall to the building. "Sheís on fire! Hurry! Over here!"

Samís felt a burst of energy as his heart jumped to his throat. He leaped up to Dr. Fullerís side, felt a doorknob, but found it was locked. He felt the wall, remembered the window, and shattered it with his elbow. Fingers numb to the pain of the broken glass cutting him through his gloves, he pulled himself into the room, glass shredding his legs. He stumbled towards the glow in the kitchen and ran into Miss Emma who had just lost her balance. He caught her as she fell. 

Sam pulled up one of the throw rugs on the floor and wrapped it around her, rolling her back and forth. He could see the flames growing in the kitchen, and the thought passed through his mind that he may have saved her, but he may be too late for the others in the building.

"Oh, my Lord! Oh, my Lord!" Sam heard Miss Emma crying hysterically. He yanked off the rug and saw that the flames were out, then pulled her into the living room. 

"Youíre OK, Miss Emma! Youíre OK!" He propped the terrified woman against the flowered couch, her arm smoldering and exposed, and left her to see if he could save this timeline from the flames.
 
 

PART TWO 

 

Project Quantum Leap

Stallionís Gate, New Mexico

December 24, 1999

 

Al, dressed in a somber suit of gray and green, walked down the hallway of the Project hand-in-hand with his wife. She, too, felt the somber importance of this meeting and gripped his hand tightly, biting her lip. Their life was about to change forever.

They reached the briefing room door, which was flanked by a pair of Marine guards, and Al pulled her to a stop. He took both of her hands, and looked at her beautiful, concerned eyes.

"This isnít over, you know," he said. "Itíll be a long, hard fight, but I wonít give up. You understand?"

She smiled softly, and touched his face. "I would expect nothing less of you," she replied, and gave him a hug.

He had a silly notion that if he simply didnít show up, nothing would change, but knew that was just a pipe dream. He stood straighter as Beth adjusted his tie, and they entered the room with his head up and his wife a half step behind him. He was the last of the Project administration to arrive, except for Donna Elesee-Beckett. It had become traditional for her to go to her family this time of year because it was too painful to spend yet another Christmas without her husband by her side. Now she may be staying there indefinitely. 

Everyone else was there, glumly sitting in the haphazardly arranged chairs. Gooshie and Tina were holding hands, staring straight ahead. Verbena was standing in the back; her arms crossed, and gave Al a feeble smile as he walked in. He returned it, then sat in the chair saved for him in the front row. Beth sat beside him. The Christmas decorations looked out of place with the somber reason for the gathering. Apparently he wasnít the only one who thought that; no one had bothered to turn on the colorful lights. 

He couldnít help but think about Sam. What would happen to him when the Project was closed? Could he complete his leaps without an Observer to help him? Al got a chill every time he thought of how his friend would feel being abandoned in time. This couldnít happen; it wasnít fair. And it all was his fault.

The door whooshed open, snapping Al from his thoughts, and a frowning Dan Wringer strode in with his assistant at his heels. He stopped at the conference table, which had been pushed against the wall, and dropped a folder of papers on top of it. The assistant stood against the wall, his hands behind his back, head bowed. Wringer faced the group. 

"My preliminary inspection of this facility is now complete, and I have voiced my recommendations to Senator Weitzman."

Al heard uncomfortable shifting of chairs in the room as Wringer held up a file and opened it. "FirstÖ."

The room wavered in front of Alís eyes, and everything became unfocused for a split second. When it cleared, he was looking at sparkling Christmas lights and Gooshie raising a champagne flute in a toast.

There was a warm breath in his ear. "Ö.be the first to congratulate you on a world record inspection time!" Beth giggled, clinking her flute against the one in his hand. Al gaped at the glass, then at Beth. "Whereís Wringer?" he sputtered.

"Wringer? Whose Wringer?" Beth looked puzzled and glanced around.

Al realized his memory of the man was fading quickly. "Wringer! The inspector aide guy!" He frowned, now unable to recall what the man looked like.

"The aide? His name was Conner, not Wringer. And you gave him the inspection of his life, dear!" Beth giggled as she sipped the champagne. "I think they had just enough time to refuel the aircraft before he was out of here. Well done!"

Al blinked, speaking before he had time to think. "Ziggy, check current D.C. listings for a Dan or Daniel Wringer, W-R-I-N-G-E-R," he spelled. Beth looked confused again, and Al kissed her on the nose.

"Whatever you say, Admiral," Ziggy replied pleasantly. Then, "There is no listing for that name in the D.C. area."

Al smiled, surprised, and then raised his glass. "Thatís great!" There was something else he wanted to say, but darned if he could recall what it was at the moment. The reason for his inquiry to Ziggy was gone from his memory. 

It was a tradition to have a toast at the end of each successful inspection, and this one was just a bit sweeter because it was Christmas Eve. He and Beth would be leaving the complex later for the rented townhouse away from the Project, and all four of their girls, along with their significant others, were due there this evening to celebrate Christmas with them. Al was very excited.

"Admiral," Ziggy purred, backed by the sound of Christmas carols. "You are needed in the Control Room."

"On my way." He gave Beth a peck on the cheek. "Stay here and have fun!" He winked at her and she pinched his butt in reply. ĎWomen and champagne!í he thought with a grin as he left the room. 

The thought that something had changed nagged at him. As the Observer, and while in the Imaging Chamber, memory of the change would linger much longer but the fading-dream effect would still occur as it just did.

ĎThat means Sam should be leaping soon,í he thought as he walked quickly down the hall. 

Then it hit him. Trudy. She was with Sam in the back of an ambulance; had anything changed for her? He also recalled Beeks yanking him from the leap at that point. Did Sam realize who Trudy was?

"Ziggy," he quickly said, "Check the name Gertrude Calavicci. Any listings in this area or New York?" His step quickened with anticipation.

"Checking," the hybrid computer replied. "Nothing found with that name. I assumed you were referring to you sister, Admiral, so I checked all data bases."

He slowed. "Thanks." Crestfallen, he allowed himself to wallow in sadness for about ten seconds. After all these years, heíd learned to deal with the disappointment, and chastised himself for still holding hope. That was old history. There was no sense in wishing for more. But then again, if Sam had just changed history, why hasnít he leaped? He hated not being out of the loop.

He shifted his weight anxiously in the elevator as it took him to the Control Room. He stepped out, finding Tina at the console. She was frowning as she studied the readouts, snapping her gum unconsciously. 

"Whatís up?" Al asked, keeping his voice level.

"Thereís been a shift in the timeline, but Dr. Beckett hasnít leaped," she said as she chewed furiously. Al had noticed in the past that the speed of her gum chewing was an indication of her concentration. She sure was focused now.

"What happened?"

"He saved the lives of three people. Stopped a fire." Her fingers flew over the console. "But heís still there."

Alís heart leaped. "Dr. Fuller hasnít reported in yet?"

"No," Tina replied.

"Let me hear."

Tina stopped and cocked her head at Al. "Dr. Beeks said you werenít to have access to the Imaging Chamber. Audio is access."

Al was about to protest when the Control Room door slid open and admitted Verbena Beeks. She was one of the few people in the Project Al couldnít intimidate; the calm, collected persona was always in place. She coolly approached the console and nodded an acknowledgment to the Admiral but her eyes were soft with understanding.

"Admiral, I know the inspector is gone, but I have to keep the status quo until Sam leaps. You know the rule about interfering. Weíve been lucky so far."

"ĎBena, I donít think luck has anything to do with Samís leaps, and I think you suspect the same thing."

"Even if thatís so, thereís nothing you can do as an Observer that Sammy Jo canít. Except influence Sam." She watched Al, her eyes showing that she was making a decision. When she spoke again, her voice was soft. "If it is God, Fate, Time or Whomever or even just Sam Beckett doing this, theyíve been doing just fine up to now. Let them continue. Iíll allow access to audio, if you wish, but I want you to think about this first."

She has Alís attention. This was why he was called to the Control Room.

Dr. Beeks continued with her hand on Alís forearm. Tina turned her back to give them further privacy. "If Sam doesnít leap, and he is there to help Trudy, things will go just fine. If not," she patted his arm. "Can you stand here and listen to her die? Sheís already gone in our time line. Youíve accepted that and moved on. Do you really think you want to start this again? Especially with it being Christmas Eve? It will always be connected in your mind. Is that what you want?"

"What about the hope I feel?" he stated calmly. "Iím going through it already, ĎBena. If that hope dies, itís the same thing."

"Hope goes hand in hand with faith. Go home, Admiral. Let this unfold as the Powers see fit; which ever Power you believe in."

Al turned it over in his mind. Before Dr. Beeks even finished the sentence, he knew which Power his money was on: Sam Beckett. He also made a decision to let the cards fall as they will, and be with his family. Thatís something Sam wasnít able to do, he thought as a pang of sorrow filled his heart for his friend. Be thankful and appreciate what he had now, because after studying the picture in Samís office, he knew deep inside that Sam had done enough for him already.

"All right," he sighed. "You win."

"I didnít realize we were in a war," she smirked, releasing his arm. "Go home, and give your girls hugs for me. Sammy Jo can handle things here, er, there, or, you know what I mean!"

Al grinned. It was always amusing to see Dr. Beeks fumble for words. She was just like the rest of us!

"Will do, boss." He gave her a quick hug. "And Merry Christmas. You too, Tina."

"Sure, Admiral. Ho, ho, ho and every thing!" She continued to crack her gum with a toothy smile, waggled her fingers at him and returned her attention to the console.

Trudy Calavicciís fate was now in Samís hands.

 

 

Medfield, New York

December 18, 1953
 
 Sam had managed to knock down the curtains into the sink, breaking another window in the process, and smothered the fire with another throw rug that Dr. Fuller pointed out in the darkness. The cabinets were scorched, as were the counter and ceiling. He was coughing viciously from the smoke and fumes, and ducked low below the cloud of smoke gathering on the ceiling. He worked his way to Miss Emma, thankful that the wind was able to clear the place out. Snow, however, was now blowing in from all the broken windows. They had to get out.

"You did it!" Sammy Jo stated. "Thatís it! Everyone survives now. You did it!" She looked up from the remote. "How is she?"

Throat and lungs burning, and feeling light headed, Sam crawled his way to the whimpering Miss Emma and carefully hugged her. He felt her wince. Through watering eyes he tried to examine her but it was too dark. "I bet that stings," he commented, coughing.

"Thank you, Janeen," Miss Emma whispered. "I could have died! You saved my life!"

"You still may freeze to death if we donít get out of here," Sam commented, ignoring her panicked expression. 

"Whoa! Thatís true!" Sammy Jo had just noticed the snow piling up in the living room.

Sam went to her bedroom and brought out a coat, gloves and hat, and had her put them on. Then he helped her up and led her to the door. Snow was swirling around in the living room. Sam felt her stiffen as they approached the door and he looked to Sammy Jo for help. She tapped away on the link.

"Oh! I donít think I can," Miss Emma whimpered. Sam could feel her shaking.

"Beeks says to have her use imagery to relax," Sammy Jo read off the link with a frown on her face. Sam looked at her with a perplexed expression, and she looked back at the flashing device. "Oh! I get it. You know, have her close her eyes and think of something nice and peaceful. Put her self in a safe place, mentally."

Sam nodded. "Miss Emma," he said calmly. "You just missed dying and nothing is scarier than that, right?" That got a little smile in response. "I want you to pretend that there is a big hole in the wall between our places. Close your eyes, OK?" She complied. "Now, take a deep breath and imagine the hole. Imagine my place, which looks just like yours, on the other side. Thereís a pot of tea waiting for us. And itís nice and warm. See it?"

She smiled softly. "Yes! I do!" She also clutched Samís arm tightly.

Sam opened her door and they stood there side by side for a few seconds. "Imagine us walking through the wall now," and he lead her out through the snowdrifts. "Keep moving, Miss Emma, and keep you eyes closed. Think about my furniture. It looks just like yours." He fished out his house keys from his frozen pocket, alarmed at the clumsiness of his grip. Miss Emmaís breaths came in frigid gasps, and her grip tightened, but she kept her eyes closed. Dr. Fuller illuminated the doorknob for him and he finally got the door opened. "Welcome to my home, Miss Emma." He pulled her inside and quickly closed the door.

The old woman opened her eyes slowly. "It does look like my place!" she commented quietly still gripping his arm. "Completely dark!"

Sam laughed at her attempt at humor. Then he took her coat off and sat her down, locating a flashlight in the kitchen to dress her wounds. There were first and second degree burns all the way up to her neck, and her hair was singed and frizzy, but she would be fine. He used white pillowcases to wrap up the arm, and gave her a warm, thick robe to wear. He also pulled off her shoes and gave her dry socks. He didnít dare light any candles.

"Here," he said, handing her the flashlight. "Take this while I get changed."

"But you canít see in the dark!" The woman protested. "Larry should be getting the generator going any time now. Heís very efficient."

"Thank goodness for that," Sam said as he glanced at Dr. Fuller, who lit up the hallway for him with the hand link. "Itís OK, I know this place like the back of my hand! Be right back!"

He pulled off the damp, smelly clothes he was wearing, noting the pink bloodstains on the white nurseís uniform. The cuts on his legs and hands were starting to throb and bleed again as he warmed up. He dumped the entire wardrobe in the bathroom tub and pulled on a clean thermal shirt and underwear. There were some clean, white sheets in the linen closet that he carried back to the living area, and asked the elderly woman to tear them into bandages for him.

"Iím going to check on the other two," Sammy Jo said, feeling useless at the moment. Sam nodded.

Miss Emma had looked a little ashen and nervous before Sam gave her the task. She perked up immediately, eager to help, and told Sam a story about how she nursed people during the Spanish flu epidemic when she was a young girl. She felt it was her calling to be a nurse, but her rich parents forbid her to go into such a Ďblue collarí field. She had always regretted not following her heart.

Sam was impressed by her touch and skill as she cleaned and wrapped Samís legs. She clucked her tongue, saying how some of them needed stitches, but knew that would have to wait. Sam told her all about the others in the car, and Miss Emmaís eyes went huge.

"Why, you have to get them in here! They wonít survive the night!" She stood up and reached for the phone, then realized the line was dead. "I know Larryís home," she murmured, and just on cue the night light in Janeenís hallway lit up. "Ah! Heís got the generator going. His boy Willie can tend to the generator. Larry and Bud can help, Iím sure. Get bundled up, child, weíve got work to do!"

As Sam dressed he heard Miss Emma rifling through the kitchen. "My, you certainly are organized! Letís see, some tea and broth, wash cloths for the feverÖ" He shook his head in amazement and admiration, knowing she was keeping busy to cover her anxiety at being out of her home. She was a real trooper. Sam knew the place would be ready for Trudy and Dane. He just had to do his part and get them here.

He had buttoned the last button and pulled on his boots and gloves and had stuffed every pocket with extra clothing when Sammy Jo blinked back to his side.

"Theyíre pretty cold, Dr. Beckett. Dane is actually doing a pretty good job of monitoring her, but youíd better hurry." 

"Iím going now," he said out loud. "Iíll send someone back to help you, OK?"

"Itís very bad out there, Janeen. Be careful!"

"I will, míam," Sam said as he pulled open the door and stepped into the frigid darkness and whirling snow.

Sammy Jo was again a colorful, glowing ball to Sam as she led him to Larryís and Budís apartments. They were reluctant to venture out, but the thought of people in need outweighed any of their objections. They were alarmed at what happened to Miss Emma, and Larryís wife volunteered to check the damaged apartment now that the power was back to make sure it was safe, then to sit with Miss Emma. It made Sam feel warm at the unselfishness of everyone; they truly pulled together in a time of need.

Sam rigged a stretcher with curtain rods and blankets, and lashed extra blankets on it for good measure. Both Larry and Bud were skeptical that Janeen could lead them to the car, but had to admit she found her way here. They bundled up, and were ready to go in no time. Larry insisted they tie themselves together so they didnít get separated.

Sammy Jo was careful to keep in Samís sight. Sam found the going a little easier now that he was properly dressed, and was soon warm under his layers. His hands and legs throbbed as they warmed up, but he kept going. Sammy Jo didnít find the return trip any easier, and she had a slight headache when the finally reached the white lump she identified at the car. Dane had kept the door area clear so it was fairly easy to remove them from the car. Larry and Bud were amazed that Janeen had found it in the whirling storm.

They bundled up Dane in the extra clothes. Sam would help him walk back while Larry and Bud hauled the well-wrapped girl. Fatigue was eating away at Samís concentration, and he felt himself drifting mentally as he tried to keep his eyes locked on Dr. Fuller. Sammy Jo noticed this, and kept right under Samís nose on the way back, hollering and waving in his face. The return went very slowly, and the storm showed no sign of letting up. Sam had no idea how long theyíd been in the elements. He could only take this one step at a time, the trusting men following his lead. 

Larry had just voiced a doubt as to their location when they stumbled into the side of the apartment building. He took control of the group when Sam collapsed into the snow, totally spent. Dane pulled vainly on his arm in an attempt to keep him on his feet, and the unnoticed hologram yelled his name over and over.

The last thing Sam recalled as he sank into the fluffy snow was that finally he felt warm and cozy.
 
 

PART THREE
 

When he finally drifted back into consciousness the first thing he was aware of was the quiet hum of conversation and soft laughter. When he reached up to his face, he felt bandages on his hands, and slowly opened his eyes. The bandages were fresh and clean. He was lying on a couch, and his entire body ached.

"I tell you, I donít know how she did it," he heard a manís voice whisper. "But there wasnít any hesitation or bad turns. She got us to that car and back in no time. I know I couldnít see a thing!"

Sam smelled the wonderful scent of coffee, and a womanís voice answered quietly, "Well, she must be like a homing pigeon or something. Some people are like that. Never need to ask directions."

"But it was a white out! You couldnít see your own hand in front of your face!" the man insisted.

"Sshh!" the woman shushed. "I think sheís awake now."

A face leaned over Sam. 

"Janeen honey? How are you? Would you like some coffee? Or broth?"

"Yes," Sam croaked, struggling to sit up. "The coffee smells great." The woman, Larryís wife Linda Sam recalled, helped him sit up and get comfortable. Sam looked out the kitchen window and saw that it was still dark.

"The storm?" he croaked.

"It looks like it letting up a bit," she said, pouring a cup and bringing it to Sam. Larry came in and sat in the chair across from him, and Linda sat on the couch next to Sam. Samís hands shook a little, and he felt incredibly weak. His lips were sore from exposure and the coffee stung them, but it tasted great.

"What time is it?" Sam asked. He tried to ignore Larry studying him.

"Almost dawn," she replied.

His memory flooded back and he quickly put the cup down and looked around the room. "Whereís Miss Emma? And the girl?" he started to rise from the couch, but Linda pushed him back down.

"Theyíre both in your bedroom, Janeen. The girlís really sick. Miss Emma hasnít left her side. That woman is a wonder; sheís managed to keep the fever down some, but I donít think thereís much we can do here."

"I think she has pneumonia," Sam said, looking down the hall, frowning. "Miss Emmaís been taking care of her?"

"Yes. She wanted us to stay here with you."

"I think Iíd like that broth now, if you donít mind."

Linda smiled and patted her knee. "Sure. You need your strength."

Larry continued to study Sam through squinted eyes. Sam smiled, dropped his eyes, and sipped the coffee.

Larry shook his head and stood. "I donít know how you did it," he mumbled as he pulled on his jacket. "Iím gonna check the generator. Power should be back on as soon as the stormís over."

When he opened the door to leave, Sam could see it was a bit lighter outside, and an enormous amount of snow was blown up on the side of the building. His observation was overridden by the swooshing of the Imaging Chamber door, and he frowned when he saw Dr. Fuller yet again. Where was Al?

"When the snow stops, I have to get her to a hospital," Sam said a little louder. "Will the roads get plowed quickly?"

Linda let out a laugh as she dissolved a bouillon cube in some boiling water and supplied an answer before the hologram even lifted the hand link. "As fast as you want. Bud drives the plow, and itís parked across the street in the County lot! Didnít you know that?"

"Oh!" Sam said with a smile. "I guess I forgot, with all the excitement." 

Sammy Jo shrugged and looked apologetic. "You look much better, Dr. Beckett," she commented.

Linda came over and handed him the beef stock. Sam downed it, not recalling the last time he ate. He felt much better and ventured into the kitchen where he poured more coffee and found some crackers. After eating a bit, he felt strong enough to check on the patient. He left Linda sipping on her coffee in the living room. 

Miss Emma had pulled a chair next to the bed, and was gently wiping the pale girl with a damp wash cloth. Her face was both concerned and content, as if this is what she was meant to do. The girl was wheezing pitifully, each breath a struggle. It pulled at Samís heart. He had to do something.

"Sheís quite a fighter," the elderly woman said softly. "So much heart. I wonder where her parents are?"

Dr. Fuller merely bit her lip and shook her head as she looked at Sam.

Sam sat on the edge of the bed across from Miss Emma. "Sheís one of the hospitalís patients. Her name is Trudy, and I think sheís an orphan." Sam recalled Alís reaction when he had seen her. How did he know her? "Whereís Dane, the driver?" Sam asked. Once again the information did not come from the Observer.

"Heís asleep at Larry and Lindaís. He was such a help, even with his injured arm. He helped us settle you and her down, and told me what to do with her. A nice boy."

ĎYeah, who probably is responsible for all this,í Sam thought to himself.

"So tell me about Trudy, here." Miss Emma was truly enamored with this patient as she patiently kept her wet and cool.

Sam told her all about Downís Syndrome. He told her the cause and the result, and the relative abilities of each afflicted person. Miss Emma was transfixed.

"You mean some of them can actually hold jobs? And take care of themselves?"

"Yes." Sam went on to explain the current treatment of such patients, and how that could be different. He presented the concept of group homes that were supervised as an idea that hadnít been pursued, but had lots of potential. He also knew the prejudices of the era, and that this type of mainstreaming was years away. Miss Emma took it all in with a quiet nodding of her head.

When Sam looked up again, it was light outside. He opened the curtain and saw the snow had stopped coming down, and quickly went to the living room. "Iím going to find Bud," he said, pulling on his jacket. "She needs a doctor."

Linda just had time to gape at him in surprise before he was out the door. Sammy Jo wondered why she bothered to show up.

 

 

Between Larry and his son, and two other men in the apartment building, there was a path shoveled to the sidewalk in no time. Sammy Jo finally made herself useful and lead Sam and two of the men to the buried car. They dug it out quickly, and heard the sound of Bud and the snowplow shortly thereafter. 

He pulled up next to Sam and hollered over the engine noise, "I have it cleared up to the apartment building. Iíll start on the road to the hospital now!" And off he went.

The shoveling men helped Sam get the car out of the snow bank, and on the cleared road. He drove right up to the entryway of the building, and left the engine running as the men piled out. They all went up the stairs to help move Trudy and Dane. Sam supervised the moving of the girl, again using the curtain rods and blankets as a stretcher. She fit comfortably in the back seat. Dane looked much better than when Sam had last seen him, and was waiting for them in the front seat. His arm was still lashed across his chest. 

"It hurt too much to move, so we just left it," he said quietly. At least he has the decency to look ashamed, Sam thought.

To Samís surprise, Linda was helping Miss Emma to the sidewalk as Sam slid behind the steering wheel. The old woman looked pale and scared, but managed a weak grin at Sam.

"I have to stay with her, Janeen. Please?" Her voice was shaky, but her eyes locked with Samís and refused to let go.

Sam saw Dr. Fullerís jaw drop in surprise, and she started typing furiously on the handlink at this request. Sam hadnít bothered to ask why he hadnít leaped when he saved Emmaís life. He knew he wasnít going anywhere until the girl was safe, too.

"Sure," Sam said. "Want to ride in back?"

Miss Emma beamed. Linda opened the door and arranged for Trudyís head to rest on Emmaís lap for the ride so she could continue to wipe her face with a damp cloth. 

"I think her fever is even worse," she said to Sam, biting her lower lip.

"Weíre doing all we can," Sam replied.

"Dr. Beckett, youíre not going to believe this. Ziggy says that youíve changed history big time." She started to read off the link. "Miss Emma here? Sheís loaded. Youíd never know by the way she lives, but she came from very wealthy parents. Never married. Originally, when she died in the fire, all her money went to her sister. Now, thanks to you, sheís the founder of the Freedom Foundation."

Sam drove carefully along the plowed road, frowning, and gave Sammy Jo a sideways look. The name obviously didnít ring a bell.

"The Freedom Foundation is the group that starts group living homes for those afflicted with Downís Syndrome! She opens the first home next year, and lives in it herself to help supervise and train the staff and residents. Itís a big step towards mainstreaming. Sheís quite the pioneer. There are Foundation homes all across the country."

A big smile broke out on Samís face. He had lots of questions, but couldnít ask them at the moment. 

Dr. Fuller continued. "The Foundation is still around, and has lots of political clout for rights of the handicapped, especially since her great-nephew took over after her death in 1974. Seems he had a knack for lobbying." Dr. Fullerís jaw dropped again and a big, goofy smile came over her face. "His name is Daniel Wringer."

Sam looked at her with an expression that clearly showed total confusion. Was he supposed to know this guy? Sammy Jo glanced up, catching the look.

"Ah, itís funny, um..." she stuttered. "It seems Iíve met Mr. Wringer before, but thatís a personal thing." She wiped the glee from her face and got back to business. Ziggy would be extremely annoyed for missing that one.

In Samís mind there was only one more thing left. What happens to Trudy? Does she survive the day? With a glance in her direction, Samís doubts grew. She looked bad. And when they got to the hospital, it would take time to figure out if they could treat her, because her medical records, complete with diagnosis and drug allergies, were in the ambulance!

"I wonder if the phones are still not working," Sam hinted.

Dane shrugged his shoulders. ďThey werenít when we left," he replied.

"No, the lines are still down," Dr. Fuller informed him.

Sam glanced at Dane. "Do you know where you went off the road?"

Dane reddened at the question. "Ah, no. Not really. It all looks the same to me out here." He shifted uncomfortably. "Iím a city boy," he said, almost ashamed.

"Weíre almost there," Sammy Jo said. "About a quarter mile. Thereís a bend in the roadÖ" The car entered the turn. "And itís right, here! Right here." Sam stopped the car.

"I think the ambulance and her records are right here. Will the papers be in the front, where you were?" Sam asked the driver as he belted down his coat tighter.

"Yeah. I carry them on the seat next to me."

Dr. Fuller blinked out of sight, and Sam spotted her half way down the embankment as he waded his way through the snow.

"Yeah! I see the papers on this side. Watch it! The hill starts..."

The warning was too late as Sam stepped off the edge and disappeared in the snow. "Dr. Beckett?"

The snow boiled as Sam slipped down the hill, stopping at the still open driver door. He dug his way in, and the hologram pointed out a clipboard with papers attached. Amazingly, they were mostly dry. Sam picked up the papers, and wiggled his way out of the vehicle and back up the hill. He was layered with snow, which he mostly brushed off before getting back in the car. By the time he was going down the road again, the heater had melted the snow and he was wet. Again. He felt like he had been constantly wet, or cold, or both on this leap.

Finally, they reached the hospital. Bud had cleared a path right up to the front door, and Sam inwardly cheered him. Dane hopped out before they had actually stopped.

"Iíll get the gurney out here," he said, carefully negotiating the icy steps. Sam felt that he was genuinely remorseful for his actions of the previous day.

"What happens to him?" he asked quietly.

The Observer punched a few buttons. "Well, originally, he was fired, and they covered up the accident. Thatís why we never knew about the transfer. He had menial jobs after that. Now, he partners up with Miss Emma there. Does the physical work on the houses for the Foundation, and is the all round go-fer guy and driver. He was a board member when he retired two years ago. Very well respected."

Sam was shivering when he got out of the car and opened the door for Miss Emma. Two orderlies came out with the gurney, followed by Dr. Beech.

"Janeen! Get inside or youíll get sick, too!" The doctor seemed extremely concerned, and the feeling about his and Janeenís relationship came to the surface again. 

"Hey!" Sammy Jo let out a laugh. "You, I mean Janeen, and Dr. Beech here get married next year! Isnít that nice?"

Sam shifted uncomfortably, and Miss Emma informed Dr. Beech about Janeenís wounds as they transferred Trudy to the gurney. Dr. Beech ordered Sam inside with a stern, doctorly look.

Trudy looked bad. Her face was flushed with fever, and she showed little signs of awareness. Her breathing was hideously ragged, her problem obvious. "Take her in now," Dr. Beech barked. "Weíll have to chance that she isnít allergic to penicillin."

"Wait!" Sam interjected. "I have her records, right here!" He reached in the car and pulled out the clipboard. Before Dr. Beech took it from his hands, Sam saw the patientís name: Gertrude ĎTrudyí Calavicci. He gasped in surprise, following her with his eyes as she was rolled in the hospital door. "Alís sister!" he whispered as Dr. Beech took his elbow.

Then there was a blue haze, and he leaped.
 
 

EPILOGUE

 

December 25, 2000

Near Stallionís Gate, New Mexico

 

Silver Bells was playing softly in the background as the warm fire crackled in the hearth. Gold bunting trimmed with lace covered glass balls shimmered in the soothing light, throwing a calming cast over the room. Shadows danced as a delicate hand wielding a long match touched the candle wicks on the wooden mantle. Extra candlelight warmed the mood of the room even more. The sparse snow and grayness of the sky outside was easily forgotten standing in the gaily decked and cozy living room. The small Christmas tree off to the side was beautifully decorated with white ribbon and bows and gold ornaments; the brightly lit star on the top chased away the shadows from the top of the tree. It was impossible to look at the star and not remember the meaning of the season.

There were six colorful stockings already hanging on the mantle, each one graced with a single name, as a seventh hook waited to be filled. Admiral Albert Calavicci carefully removed the final stocking from its padded box. Its colors werenít as bright as the others, obviously faded by time. Some of the lace trim had holes, and most of the glitter had worn off. He smiled.

"She would rub the glitter, and each year a little more would come loose," he said fondly as he gently smoothed it out and hung it on the last nail. "I would spell out her name, and point to each letter," he said, smiling, touching each letter on the cuff once again.

"And she would be so excited; she wouldnít remember the letters, would she?" Beth stood behind her husband and wrapped her arms around his waist. She laid her head on his back and admired the tree as she listened.

"No," he laughed, "she wouldnít." He put his hands on top of hers and gazed at the stocking, lost in thought. "This year I would have gotten her one of those suede jackets with all the zippers. In purple. And it would be in a big box, wrapped in purple paper with a big, purple bow." Al accented the pís, making popping sounds as he spoke. Beth laughed lightly, and he smiled. "Because purpleÖ"

"Was her favorite color!" They finished together, ending their simultaneous thought in soft giggles.

Beth wiggled her way to the front of her husband and they held each other gently as they regarded the old stocking and swayed to the soft music. She couldnít help it, either. Slowly, she reached out and touched each of the letters that made up Trudyís name, as her husband slowly rocked her, deep in nostalgic thought, the Ďwhat ifsí unspoken.

Alís hands lay on top of the arm Beth had wrapped around his waist. He saw her other hand reaching out to touch the tattered stocking when an odd wave rolled over him. He didnít actually feel anything, but his vision was slightly blurred, as if under water, for just a fraction of a second. When his sight cleared again, there was Bethís outstretched hand. At this moment, however, her fingers were reaching out and lifting a brightly glittering, new stocking stuffed with goodies, from the nail over the hearth. The name ĎTrudyí stood out in shiny gold piping. He heard Bethís light laughter and the sound of ripping paper.

"Weíd better give her this to keep her busy! Iím sure sheíll want to run outside to show the neighborhood her jacket!" Beth laughed as she released Al and walked away.

Al spun around, inhaling sharply, his heart pounding. There, by the tree sparkling with lights, purple wrapping paper was settling down around a seated woman who was smiling gleefully as she reached into a box.

"Trudy!" Al whispered, his voice cracking after the first syllable. He could feel the tears welling in his eyes as he stood, transfixed, watching his sister pull out the jacket and squeal with delight. He heard other people entering the room, laughing, and knew his daughters were home for the holidays. As he watched Beth kneel down next to Trudy and hand her the stocking, and saw his sister and wife embrace in a hug, he knew this wasnít the way it had always been. He knew this was something both remarkable and blessed, and that he was the luckiest man alive. But as the seconds ticked by, the fleeting thoughts of another life, of another set of circumstances, faded like a bad dream.

And before the dream faded completely from his memory, Al wiped the tears from his eyes and whispered, "Thank you, Sam."

 

 E-mail A. J. Burfield