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I’ve had some rough arrivals over the years. Leaping around in time and never knowing when or where I am going to end up has meant that I have had to learn to be prepared for almost anything and pretty much roll with the punches. Of course the latter only works when you actually see the blows coming and I am definitely beginning to think that I have missed something. To start with my head feels like I’ve gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson and not surprisingly, come off second best. Honestly, I feel I like I’ve been hit by a bus. Everything hurts and I groan aloud, unable to escape the pain racking my body.
Over the pounding in my head I can hear the faint, rhythmic sounds of monitors and through the fog still clouding my consciousness I also register lights flickering and changing colour nearby. It occurs to me that I’ve been in an accident and that would explain the table I am currently lying on and the voices I hear gathering around me.
Ignoring everything I have been taught in regards to sustaining an unspecified injury I twist and stretch, my hands slipping repeatedly against the smooth surface beneath them, trying with only minimal success to gain purchase and enough leverage to roll over. Momentum plays a small part, but the change in position is too painful and I only manage to turn on my side before my body protests; refusing further cooperation and effectively rendering me breathless. I am still disorientated, my vision distorted beyond anything I have experienced leaping in before and I rest for a moment just trying to get my bearings. Closing my eyes and then opening them again I attempt to focus, but it doesn’t make a lot of difference because everything is still fuzzy and slightly off centre.
The voices seem closer now, one in particular asking me questions, assuring me that I am safe. I look up, once again trying to focus, to make sense of what or who I am seeing, but it’s all a blur. The hand on my arm is firm however, encouraging and I accept the help offered to rearrange myself.
It’s a mistake. The room tilts and my head spins as I am assisted to sit up, bile rising. I don’t remember when I last ate but it is clearly unimportant. My stomach churns and I retch before I can provide a warning to those around me. My body convulsing of its own accord and it is only the quick reflexes of the woman standing beside me that stops me from toppling forward. By the time it’s over and the nausea recedes I am completely wiped out - too physically drained to even be embarrassed.
There is a small flurry of activity around me. Much of which occurs without me paying it any real notice. Individuals come and go. I am given water, my chin carefully supported while I take cautious sips to reduce the residual aftertaste in my mouth and to cool my throat. The mess I have created is dealt with quickly and efficiently. A small maintenance team working in complete silence leaves behind a ‘caution wet floor’ sign as the only evidence that they had been here at all. My head still hurts but the other pain has receded to a dull ache and I watch their departure with interest, my attention shifting as I am finally able to take in my surroundings.
Stark boundless walls that suggested either a research or medical facility surround me on all sides. Sparse contemporary furnishings. Well furniture piece, considering that the table I am sitting on is the only item in the room. I glance down at myself and for the first time since my arrival I realise what I am wearing. My vision coming and out of focus again at the sight of my Fermi suit and very slowly I lift my gaze, not quite believing where I am or who it is that has been trying to help me. My heart rises in my chest, choking me temporarily and my eyes gradually filling with tears as reality takes hold.
The unwavering professionalism that I have always associated with her is replaced briefly with surprise. “Do we know one another?” she inquires.
I am still trying to accept that I am finally home and I swallow hard. “It’s Sam, Verbena. Sam Beckett.” Watching her closely I see surprise then replaced with concern and something I don’t quite catch as the wall in front of us slides open and Al appears.
Smiling through my tears as he steps forward I force out the first words that come to mind. “Oh boy!”
My favourite catchphrase is not lost on either Al or Verbena, but after I am not sure how many years it becomes obvious that neither is willing to give it too much attention. Al seems to be more focused on my appearance, his usually confident stride becoming less so the closer he gets to the table. He tries to smile as he approaches, both at myself and the women to my right, doing his best I imagine to put me at ease, but it is clear that something about how I look has caught him off guard. He stops within a couple of feet. He’s not exactly staring, but he is studying me.
I am not sure what it means, except I do recall Al telling me that the person in the waiting room looked exactly like me and that is why I appeared as my host to everyone else. Frankly I am too relieved to see him to give it anything more than a passing thought.
For his part Al is dressed in his own flamboyant style of brightly coloured jacket and matching fedora. An unlit cigar held loosely between the first and middle fingers of his right hand completes the familiar picture. He looks good, tired, but bearing in mind the hours he keeps, he appears just as his usually does -- a welcome sight for very sore eyes. I give him one of my best smiles, my tears drying on my face, but he doesn’t seem to notice.
“Hi,” he says, “I’m Al.” Then without waiting for a reply looks to Verbena for support, or perhaps a name.
“This is Sam, Al. Sam Beckett,” she supplies, watching our exchange.
There is a spark of something that may be recognition. It’s hard to say. I can see Al turn the information over in his mind, weighing the possibilities of meeting two men with the same name and then just as quickly discounting it as no more than a coincidence. I can’t help feel a little disappointed, but it wasn’t that unusual I guess. Not including the Irish poet there were probably multiple Sam or Samuel Beckett’s dotted across the globe, not to mention the ones living in the United States at any given time.
“Okay, so where are you from Sam?”
The handlink is drawn from his jacket pocket and information entered into the small device.
“It’s me Al, Sam,” I reply, smiling at him once more. My heart is so full I feel like it’s going to burst. Just seeing him and being here was literally my dream come true. He nods in return, but is completely oblivious.
I feel myself choking up again. My chest tight and my mind full of the things I want to say. All I want is to slip off the table and wrap my arms around him, it’s been so long that I can barely remember what it felt like to hold him. There would be certain protocols when it came to dealing with anyone in the waiting room though and as much as I wanted him to just accept it is me I know there will be no avoiding his questions.
He is all business now and for a moment I consider what I should tell him. I swallow again, trying to calm some of the emotion coiling inside of me as I formulate my answer.
“I’m originally from Indiana,” I begin slowly, “but I moved to Massachusetts when I went to MIT and then after I graduated it was wherever the funding was available, during the early nineties my partner and I moved to New Mexico to work on a time travel experiment funded by the Government.”
Al blinks a couple of times in quick succession as he tries to comprehend what he has been told. “What did you say?”
I smile again, I am still unsteady, but I ease myself off the table. My legs feel like they are made of jello and I am grateful for the hand Verbena offers me and the gentle reminder to take it easy as I lean against the table top for support.
“I said, that my name is Doctor Sam Beckett and this is Project Quantum Leap, our project Al.”
He has never been one to take anything on face value. He shakes his head, glancing at Verbena and then back at me, his eyes narrowing. “Never heard of it.”
For all the years we planned and dreamed together the name of our project was one of the few things that remained confidential. The funding body knew it of course, but no one without the top secret clearance necessary to work alongside me had ever heard the title mentioned aloud or seen it written down. That Al continued to protect my work after all the years that have passed since we first broke ground many levels above where we both stand fills me with a sense of longing that I don’t have the words to describe -- reminding me of how much I love him, have always loved him.
I am finally home and all I needed was for him to understand that. The how and why could be dealt with later.
Testing the strength of my legs I let go of the hold I have on the table. I know what I need to say now to convince him and I take a careful step towards where he is standing. “That’s not completely true, is it Al?”
It’s clearly not the response he was expecting. His suspicious nature is on full alert. The handlink falls forgotten as the hand gripping it drops to his side, the furrow between his brows drawn tight, emphasizing the level of concentration required to hold his temper in check. “Look pal I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he tells me in no uncertain terms.
“But you do,” I counter, truly wishing I felt stronger.
Al could be downright intimidating when he wanted to be. It’s not an act. His bark is just as frightening as his bight and it was best I have learnt, not to tempt either unnecessarily. Unfortunately some things couldn’t be avoided.
I take a deep breath and another small step forward. “I understand that this is what you and Verbena do when someone arrives in the waiting room, you ask questions, but it’s not necessary.”
I glance back over my shoulder at the woman still standing quietly behind me and offer her what I hope is an apologetic smile before turning back to Al. “You know my name,” I tell him. “And a great deal more about me. More than most people in fact. There are dozens of photographs of us standing side by side, news articles dating back a decade or more that tie us together in one way or another. Professionally of course, we’ve needed to be careful, but no one questions two old friends being seen together in public or even taking time out of their busy schedules to meet up every other Friday for dinner.”
I pause, feeling increasingly unstable on my legs as I search his face for a sign of acknowledgement, anything to tell me that I am getting through to him. “You remember the place,” I prompt. “It’s out along the interstate, there’s a motor inn attached to it and we all stayed there at one time or another while the project was being built.”
I let the words hang between us. There are other things I could say, personal things that I know he would not appreciate me revealing in front of Verbena. She’s a friend but Al has never been overly comfortable about discussing our relationship with anyone. The navy still frowned on same sex relationships and we both knew he would lose a lot more than just his pension if it became public knowledge that we were involved.
Al is quiet, no doubt trying to decide if anything I have said holds merit or not. He appears more bemused than angry. His eyes have softened certainly, but it is almost if he is still expecting some kind of punch line because maybe the idea of having me home is just too good to be true.
My heart goes out to him, but the ball is in his court now. He would either choose to believe me or we would continue with his questions until he did.
Thankfully it’s Verbena who breaks the almost oppressive silence steadily enveloping the room.
“Al,” she interrupts gently, stepping forward to stand beside me. “There are tests we could run.” It’s not a question.
He shakes his head and then pulls his gaze away from me to address her. “No, there aren’t, not really.”
It’s difficult to say whether it is apprehension I hear underlying Al’s words or something else. He is still suspicious that much is clear and it occurs to me that perhaps if its fear, but that doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand. Why would he be afraid?
I am suddenly reminded of what I had thought when he came in, that there was something about the way I looked. I glance down at myself and then raise my right hand to examine it. Readjusting the distance to focus better I note the obvious signs of aging that I can’t recall noticing before, but other than also realising that my nails definitely need cutting I cannot tell if there is anything different. Something coils inside of me, my confidence and certainty wavering as I lift my hand to touch my face. There is very little to be revealed by myself examination though. I needed to shave and may have lost some weight, but that didn’t explain Al’s earlier reaction or why I would feel that he was afraid. I let the thought go for the time being, dropping my hand to my side I return my attention to those around me.
Verbena and Al as still regarding one another, she at least seems more open to the possibility that I’m who I say I am.
“I didn’t mean the usual medical tests used to establish identity,” she explains. “I meant that there must be questions we can ask, things that only Sam would know.”
Her intuitiveness is what has always made her invaluable and I manage a small smile. Al on the other hand is less impressed.
His eyes narrow again. His continuing scepticism making him far from happy. “You mean other than where we used to have dinner?”
He doesn’t give her a chance to answer or mention the project, instead he turns on me, pinning me with a look that makes me want to take a step back. “Which by the way isn’t classified. Anyone that works at the restaurant could have seen us. We were regulars.”
I feel myself flinch. Then almost as an afterthought he seems to remember the handlink. Turning it in his hands he adds. “I’m not sure what you’re inferring about Doctor Beckett and me or if this is someone’s idea of sick joke, either way there is one way we can be certain.”
“The imagining chamber,” I provide.
It feels as if Al is looking straight through me now and while he neither confirms nor denies my suggestion I see him swallow hard as if the very idea is completely unpalatable and needs to be forced down.
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