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Part Four

Verbena

Operating at a level of precision and expertise rarely seen outside of large city hospitals the usually reliable sensors concealed within the tables internal workings are abandoned for the more sophisticated electrocardiography machine and sphygmomanometer. A measure that hasnít been necessary for some time, six months at least, I realise. Not since Sam leaped into the retired Louisiana lawyer and the poor man had gone in the cardiac arrest whilst he was with us.

I help where I can but it quickly becomes evident that I need to stand out of the way so as not to impede the movement of others as Kate and her small team work to lower our visitorís blood pressure and heart rate. Cutting away Samís body suit to expose his chest and to apply resuscitation should it be required, electrodes and leads are attached at the necessary points on his body and over the course of untold minutes the crisis is averted.

Judging from the expression on Kateís face and the ECG display the situation was now under control. Our guestís heart rate is still a little irregular, but nowhere near as concerning as it had been. I can see her talking to him and can just make out his murmured replies. The tension in my own body receding to some extent and for the first time since the emergency had begun I breathe a sigh of relief. The fact that he has remained conscious and able to respond throughout is a very good sign.

It becomes obvious moments later however, that Kate isnít the only person speaking to him.

ďAl.Ē

Samís voice is weak, yet still distinctive amongst the sounds already filling the space. As is the affection contained in the single word.

I recall Al had mentioned something about the imagining chamber and I move forward to get a better view, my eyes scanning the room in search of the man most associated with the name. There is no sign of the Projects only remaining director, but I know better than to discount his presence altogether.

ďDo you remember us?Ē

Seconds that may have been as long as full minutes pass. The constant sound of the ECG and the low hum of conversation providing a cover for the silent exchange, until I see the edge of Samís lips curve into a soft smile.

There is moisture gathering at the corner of his eyes and I watch as they flutter closed, the build-up of emotion spilling down his cheeks unchecked. Apparently content with the answer he has received from our unseen interloper he turns his attention to those around him. A sense of peace settling over him, the realisation of which is nothing short of miraculous. I feel as if I have just witnessed the shifting of a great weight from his shoulders, or perhaps the confirmation of a long held promise.I am not sure; I only know that I have been made privy to something incredibly intimate. My own eyes mist up as I continue to regard him, his handsome face showing none of their earlier signs of stress or pain and my heart skip a hopeful beat. I am very aware that I am only hearing half of a conversation, but his question had been so similar to the one he had asked Al and the reminder of it brings a dozen others to mind. Could this really be our Sam? Had he finally come home?

I look up again, searching for signs of life in the direction he had been watching. There is no one there of course. For all intents and purposes he had been talking to himself, except something tells me that is not the case.

Honestly, I donít know if this is Sam or not, but if anyone will, it would be Al.

Catching Kateís eyes I indicate towards the wall at the far end of the room and slip away.

My exit is barely complete and the wall sealing the waiting room from the rest of the complex is no sooner closed behind me when I catch sight of Donna Elesee headed towards me. One of her many shawls drawn protectively around her narrow frame, her fingers clasped tightly at the edges and the soft glow of her wrist link flickering beneath. I donít know what she has heard or if she has simply come to see Sam. Not being in contact or even having his body here for the last many weeks has been difficult for her and it is perfectly understandable for her to want to see her husband. Even if the man in the waiting room hadnít been the one she married for a very long time.

I offer her a friendly smile and move to meet her half way.ďHello, thereís been quite a bit of excitement tonight.Ē

I try to keep my tone light and positive to counter her more serious expression though it is clear I have my work cut out for me.

ďIs he back, Verbena?Ē

Her eyes are bright, fear of yet another disappointment barely contained under a carefully constructed faÁade. My heart clenches in sympathy, but I keep my own optimism in check. There was no point getting ahead of myself. I still need to talk to Al to confirm the identity of our latest guest, but as Samís wife she has a right to know about the transformation that had occurred since we last saw him. Whatever Al tells me I know she will want to see him, and it is best I decide, to prepare her first.

Nodding, I take hold of her arm and turn her gently in the opposite direction. After everything she has been through she doesnít need to see what is going on in the waiting room just now. It would unsettle anyone.

ďI heard the medical team had been brought in, and that there was a problem with the visitorís heart,Ē she says.

Donnaís steps slow, drawing me to a halt beside her. There is no point denying it. Ziggy would have informed her the moment our visitor arrived and the Projects grapevine would have supplied the rest of the information, making up what had not been included in the original transmission and spreading it across the remainder of the facility in a matter of minutes.

ďYes, but itís all under control now,Ē I explain. ďWe should talk though. How about we have some tea in my office?Ē

Undoubtedly distracted she doesnít respond immediately and instead glances back in the direction of the waiting room, trying to decide I imagine, if she will come with me or not. Her brief seconds of indecision working in my favour as it turns out when Al suddenly appears at the other end of the corridor. Looking far too startled for my liking, but giving nothing away as he raises a finger to his lips to stop me announcing his presence and then backs away without saying a word.

Itís very strange, even by Alís standards. He and Donna have never been what I would call close. Still, I have never known him to purposely avoid her before, especially when it came to Sam or dealing with one of his leaps. There was clearly something going on. Iím just not sure what at this point. The sooner I find out, the sooner I will know how to help.

I note the careful disengagement as Donnaís arm slips from my loose grasp at the same time Al appears and subsequently disappears. Turning to regard her I watch as she takes a step towards where her husbandís body is housed, her gaze still fixed in that direction.

To be honest I am a little confused. I am not used to my friends behaving in such peculiar ways or feeling as if I only have half the story to work with and it takes me a moment to catch up. Al has always been difficult to pin down. Some days his priorities are clear, he loves and cares for Sam as would be expected given their long friendship and current predicament while on others he is less secure, constantly second guessing himself and the decisions he makes. I have often thought he would be a perfect candidate for post-traumatic stress disorder, but he has never given me the time, let alone his permission to properly diagnose him.

I glance once more at the empty corridor and then back towards the waiting room where Donna is standing. For the time being at least Al would have to remain the enigma he has always been. In all good conscious I know I canít let Donna see Sam before I talk to her and the realisation that she must be my primary concern in all of this is enough for me to gather my wits.

ďI have camomile,Ē I inform her, hoping the lure of a good nightís rest might make the decision for her.Of course I generally keep a wide selection of teas and sleeping draughts, but some varieties are more enticing than others.

Whatever the outcome of tonight, it promises to be a long one for all concerned and I know sleep doesnít come easily to her. I also know she prefers natural remedies to prescriptions ones and that I have never been able to persuade her to accept something stronger than a cup of tea to help her deal with Samís ongoing absence. It is not surprising. Her husband hasnít been home in almost two years and then it was only for a few hours. Before that it had been a little over three years. Under the circumstance I donít imagine I would sleep very well either.

Almost shyly she turns back to face me. ďOkay,Ē she says. Itís plaintive, almost as if the fear was getting the better of her but she wasnít ready to admit it just yet.

I am relieved, not because she is obviously willing to talk to me, but because I know itís better if she has the information she deserves. ďCome on then.Ē

The remainder of the short trip is conducted in silence, as is the tea making ceremony that usually precedes one of our discussions. Settling in a respective chairs I let her raise the mug I have given her a couple of times to her lips before setting my own aside. Not at all surprised that it is Donna who starts the conversation.

ďHas an identity been established?Ē she inquires.

I shake my head. ďAl is still working on it.Ē I try to sound casual, reminding myself that until he tells me otherwise this was just another leap. If the man in the waiting room turns out to be Sam then I will deal with any questions she has about why I didnít tell her earlier when the need arises.

My response is accepted with a slight incline of her head. Sometimes it took hours before we knew who we were dealing with and Donna like the rest of us understood that.

ďIs something wrong with him Verbena? I donít just mean with his heart, is there something else?Ē

Despite the slight tremor I detect as she balances her tea in one hand and attempts to draw her shawl more firmly around her shoulders with the other she appears calm, her voice steady.

ďWhat makes you ask that?Ē

The tears start without fanfare. There is no bid made to wipe them away or to even acknowledge their existence. A box of Kleenex lays between us, but she makes no move for it and not wanting to interrupt her I donít offer them to dry her eyes. For long minutes I wait and eventually she answers me.

ďBecause heís never been missing before and itís been so long. Six weeks Verbena. God only knows where he has been all this time and what heís been through.Ē

Her voice is less steady now and I lean forward a little, choosing my words carefully. Most of what I am about to say she already knows but it is important I believe to set the ground work for what I am guessing she suspects.

ďYou know that ever since Sam leaped the first time weíve been taking care of his needs. When heís on a leap the visitor is generally mobile and that helps with muscle tone and circulation. He is also fed and showered depending on how long our guest stays. Sample taking, and testing along with hair cutting and shaving usually occurred during the in-between times.Ē

Donna nods and reaches at last for Kleenex to wipe her eyes.

Itís the times between Samís leaps that she avoids and I canít say I blame her. Being present when a visitor is alert and communicating is very different to dealing with the cold reality of her situation when her husband is little more than a shell, artificially sustained because he is not capable of caring for himself.Giving her another moment or two to refocus, I watch as she tucks the now damp tissue through the band circling her wrist and I go on.

ďFor the last few years Sam has appeared mostly unchanged, even the signs of aging that would have normally occurred over the same period seem to have been delayed for some reasons. There have been discussions, but none of us really know why he hasnít been getting any older.Ē

I let my words trail off, watching as she absorbs what I have said until a tiny spark of recognition appears in her eyes.

ďHeís aged?Ē she asks, incredulous.One of her small hands moving to her chest to rest over her heart. ďIs that what you wanted to talk to me about, that heís finally started to look his age?Ē

ďYes,Ē I reply, more than a little taken back by her reaction.

ďOh thank God, I thought it was something else. I donít know what exactly, I was just afraid there was something terribly wrong with him.Ē

Her entire posture changes as she speaks, her shoulders relaxing and her expression becoming less strained. Itís a welcome sight, but one I had not expected to see. The tears start again, but this time they are obviously shed in relief. I want to explain in more detail, help her understand that Samís persona hadnít just caught up the years he had been leaping; he had in fact aged by at least twice that length of time, but Donna it seems has other ideas.

ďCan you show me?Ē she says, setting her tea down on the small table beside her and gesturing towards the monitor on my desk as she stands up.

There are close circuit cameras throughout the Project, including the waiting room and imaging chamber. Our security team takes care of most things but there are monitors set up for each head of department in their officers to keep track of Samís whereabouts. None have sound but all allow observation without disturbance. Not to mention reassurance when one of us is not able to be present.

While I would prefer she waited, it is clear Donna isnít put off by what she has learnt.She is bound to become suspicious if I refuse her and it is better I decide, that if she wants to see Sam, that I am with her, at least this first time.

ďOkay,Ē I return, rising myself and stepping around my chair to take up my place on the other side of the desk.

I had intended to keep working before the alarm to announce Samís return had sounded. There are still unsaved notes on my computer and I take care of those before I switch on the monitor and turn it so that Donna can see also. She has dried her eyes again and has been smiling at me as I work. Excited but a little anxious I imagine. She is not the only one of course and I take a moment as the monitor warms up to purposely calm myself, knowing that whatever she makes of all of this she will need my support.

Even with both of us as ready as possible and my best intention firmly in place some things just donít work out the way you plan. The overhead light is reflecting on the screen; causing havoc with the picture and it is necessary for me to adjust the position a couple of times before we can both make out what is going on in the waiting room.

At first glance everything appears much as it had a short time ago, Kate is still there, as are a number of her staff although they seem more occupied with the equipment than the man they have been treating. The reason why becomes plain when I note the familiar sight of Alís brightly coloured jacket amongst those gathered around the table in the middle of the room.The only explanation I can think of is that he must have gone back in after I had seen him in the corridor. It still donít understand why he didnít want to see Donna, but I will have to add that question to the growing list of others I have for when I see him next. His presence makes it is impossible to see Sam with him standing in the way though and I switch camera angles to get a better view.

Itís an improvement of sorts and I look over at the women hoping for a glimpse of her husband as we perch together on the corner of my desk. Her arms are once again folded protectively across her chest, her hands twisting the tassels on her shawl in anticipation. I reach out briefly, stroking her long hair, grateful I am here with her before I look back at the screen.

Apprehension steadily growing inside of me as the scene before us develops into something completely unexpected.

The others have moved away now and Al is bending over our guest, the other manís arms extended to embrace him. I canít hear what they are saying but you would have to be blind not to see the love in Samís eyes as his tapered fingers caress Alís face or the kiss he presses to his lips when he pulls him closer.

 

Part Five

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