Chapter 20 Having a day start with a confrontation with "Aaron", usually meant that Howard was in for, as Grandma Green used to say, "a day that even the devil wouldn't touch". And it had been just that. First Aaron. Then missing half a day's work to drive over to meet with the director of the Colver State Hospital. And finally, when he got back to the factory a little after lunch, finding out that the air conditioning still wasn't repaired. After enduring upwards of eighty-five degree, airless heat for nearly three hours, Howard couldn't stand any more, and clocked out. "Two hours and forty-seven minutes," he'd muttered bitterly when he looked at his time card after punching out. "Nearly a whole day's pay shot to hell." By the time he pulled into his driveway twelve minutes after he left the factory, Howard was ready to lock the front door and forget the world outside existed. But the terrified screams that he heard coming from the direction of Perry's bedroom squashed that hope. Slamming the truck into park, the big man bailed out at a dead run and tore into the house, up the stairs and down the hall. He didn't hesitate at the door behind which the screams were coming from. Throwing the door open he was slammed with a full-throated scream of terror, and ran across the room to its source. In spite of the screams assaulting his ears, for a moment Howard just stood, staring. Staring down at his nearly grown son crammed into a corner of the closet, his eyes squeezed shut and kicking and flailing his arms as if possessed...and felt his another piece of his heart break away. But that weary, familiar ache was slapped aside as the anger that had simmered all day came to a head. ---------------- The mind link connected and Al watched Perry Kirkwood's small bedroom come into focus. His heart leapt into his throat when he heard hysterical screaming behind him. Spinning around he saw Howard Kirkwood just standing, staring into the open closet. Running to the open door, he looked inside and felt his stomach tighten. *Jesus, Mary and Joseph!* Al thought. *What's happening to him?* Then he glanced at the motionless man beside him and felt his blood begin to boil. "Do something!" he shouted angrily in Howard Kirkwood's face, even though he knew it was a useless action. "How can you just stand there, you heartless bastard! Help him!" But Howard never moved, never blinked. Spitting curses in Italian as fast as they crossed his mind, the Observer shot a malevolent look at Perry's father, then moved in front of him, facing the closet. For a couple of seconds Al watched his best friend crammed into a corner of the closet, his face wet with what he was sure was a cold sweat, his eyes squeezed shut. Watched him kicking and screaming hysterically as he batted and slapped at the edges of the clothes and plastic dry cleaning bags when they brushed against him. "GET 'EM OFF!" Sam screamed. "GET 'EM OFF!" He continued slapping frantically at his head, running his hands wildly through his hair. "Sam!" Al shouted to make himself heard. "SAM!" Through the terror rampaging in his mind, Sam heard a sound... a familiar sound...and grabbed at it. "Al!" he screamed. "Get 'em off me!" "There's nothing on you," Al had to almost shout to be heard. "I can feel 'em..." Sam babbled. Al knew he had to get Sam to open his eyes. "There's nothing on you, Sam," he said as loudly and calmly as possible. "Open your eyes, and see for yourself." It grabbed at his heart to see his friend slapping and swiping at his own face. "I can't. They'll get in my eyes!" Al said firmly, "You trust me, don't you, Sam?" "Yes, but...." "Then believe me," Al enunciated each word clearly and calmly. "There-is-nothing-on-you-anywhere." "But I feel..." Squatting down so he was at eye level with Sam, Al continued to speak in firm, calm tones. "What you're feeling are plastic bags and clothes brushing against you." He paused. Then, with the same gentle firmness he had addressed to Perry, said, "Trust me, Sam. Open your eyes." In spite of what his mind was telling him he would see, Sam tightened his hold on the familiar sound of Al's voice, trusted it...and opened his eyes. For several seconds more he remained backed into the corner, his eyes fixed on the hologram, and gulping in huge breaths. Finally he whispered, "Are they..gone?" "Look for yourself," Al maintained a tone of unhurried authority, his eyes never leaving Sam. "I'm...afraid," Sam whispered. "Face your fear or you'll never get past it," Al said firmly. "Look at yourself." A sense of relief replaced the anxiety as he watched Sam's eyes glance first at his arms, then down at his body. Standing up, the Observer watched the Nobel-prize winning physicist jump nervously when a corner of a plastic bag brushed against his forehead, bat it away, and then crawl through his holographic image and out of the closet. Sam was still on his hands and knees when he bumped into Howard, nearly knocking him down. "I heard you screaming from the driveway," Howard said, his voice a heavy mix of anger faintly stained with concern as he bent down and grabbed his son and hauling him to his feet. "And what the hell do you mean coming here at three in the afternoon? The last class doesn't get out till three forty-five." He tightened his grip and shook his son once, hard. "Damn it, Aaron, answer me!" All Al could do was stare, his anger momentarily blind-sided by the statement. But he noticed it had a different effect on Sam. "I'm not Aaron," Sam said a bit sharply as he yanked free of Howard's hard grip on his upper arms. Though still a bit shaky from his ordeal, he faced Perry's father, lifting his chin, hazel-green eyes meeting gray. Howard took an involuntary step back when his son pulled free of his grip. He hesitated before saying, "Perry?" "Yes, dad," Sam said carefully. "It's me." He lifted his chin. "Why did you call me Aaron, dad?" Howard was unsettled by his son's sudden change in attitude. Something in his eyes was different, certainly in the way he stood, and in the way he moved as he stepped past him to close the closet door. He jumped a little when the question was repeated as 'Perry' turned to face him again, his intent expression unwavering. Not defiantly. More like a young man who has suddenly discovered his own inherent male strength. "Why did you call me Aaron, dad?" Sam repeated the question, keeping his eyes level with Howard's. "I...I was thinking about him," Howard said. "He came by today." "When?" Sam challenged. Though caught off guard for a few moments, Howard felt his anger begin to rise again. "This morning," he snapped. "While I was waiting for you in the truck." Sam started to verbally jump all over his host's father, but the sight of Al, standing behind the man and shaking his head and pointing at the handlink made him bite his tongue. "Don't do it, Sam," Al warned. "Ziggy says if you let your anger get the better of you right now, there's an eighty-two percent probability that Aaron's gonna get loose again." "And?" Sam demanded, not caring about the confused look on Howard's face at the odd question. "And he'll take over your body and kill Howard in the next ten minutes. And...," Al swallowed then finished. "...you'll be killed seven minutes later." Sam forgot about Howard. "What?" He nodded, quickly filling in the rest of the new history. "When you stood up to Howard a minute ago, you changed history," he said, punching in codes almost as fast as Ziggy was providing information. "In this new history," Al said, "one of the neighbors heard yelling and screaming in the house on the afternoon of August 14, 1963..today..and called the police. By the time the cops got here five minutes later, they found Perry in his bedroom still beating his father's lifeless body with..." Al glanced around, then pointed, "...that baseball bat." He paused. "According to the officers' report, when they ordered Perry to drop the bat, he screamed something and came at them." He met Sam's shocked gaze. "It took six shots to stop him." He hesitated. "According to the autopsy, they dug six bullets out of his body, but it was the first shot..in the middle of his forehead..that killed Perry Kirkwood." Howard hadn't shifted his gaze from his son for a second as he listened to the odd, one-sided conversation. It wasn't the first one he ever witnessed or heard his son carry on. But the way the boy's expressions were changing ...absolutely focused attention... surprise...shock...disbelief...and finally, a quiet acceptance... troubled him even more. So much so that his own anger was momentarily forgotten. "Son?" Howard said, putting a hand on one of Perry's shoulders. He didn't flinch when the boy jerked nervously. "What is it?" he asked, moving his hand up to run it slowly over his son's head. "Are you all right? Did you hit your head on something when you...fell in the closet?" Sam couldn't remember ever feeling as mentally and physically exhausted as he did at the moment. He shivered as the slight puff of air caused when Howard raised his arm to run his fingers over his head, touched his sweat dampened shirt. The last question gave him something of an out, and he nodded. "I guess so," he said carefully. "Must've...blacked out." Sam flitted a glance at the Observer who was keeping a sharper watch on the handlink than the cigar now almost burned down to his fingers. But he knew instantly that his next words were wrong when Al stiffened. "Guess when I hit my head it triggered a..sort of nightmare." Howard reacted almost identically. "A nightmare?" "Careful, Sam," Al warned. "Maybe...nightmare was the wrong word," Sam corrected himself hurriedly. "All I remember is..." In a single glance he saw that man and hologram's attention was riveted on him. "...feeling like..." he gulped then named his fear. "...like spiders were crawling on me." Howard felt the tightness across his shoulders ease and he managed a bit of a smile. "And to think, when you were little, I was always finding bugs in your pockets." "Guess I forgot about that," Sam conceded with a forced smile. After another moment of awkward silence, Howard left the room. "I'm gonna get a shower," he said pausing at the door to look back. "Change your shirt and start supper." He barely waited long enough to see his 'son' nod. Stripping off the damp shirt, Sam grabbed a tee shirt from a drawer and pulled it on as he headed for the kitchen. He wasn't surprised to find the Observer there ahead of him. For a couple of minutes Al didn't say anything. Pulling a fresh cigar from an inside pocket of his jacket, he lit it, watching his friend through the fragrant haze of smoke that rose as the tip of the Chivello yielded to the lighter's flame. Snapping the lighter shut, he took a long pull from the cigar, exhaled smoothly, then said two words. "What happened?" Sam hesitated as he reached to open the refrigerator. "You mean..." "Yeah." He turned to face Al. "A memory happened," Sam said, pushing his hands into his back pockets so Al wouldn't see the nervous tremor in them. "A very old, terrifying childhood memory." He saw the unspoken question in the Observer's eyes and answered it. "Aaron...found it and was..." Al spared his friend having to go into the details. "I get the picture." But he needed to know more. "What was the memory?" The light film of sweat that sprang up on the time traveler's brow was instantly noted, and he went to stand in front of his friend. "Believe me, Sam," he said, looking up into his friend's eyes. "I know what flashbacks and night terrors are like. It took a lot of years after 'Nam for me to work through mine. It was damned near as bad as living through the real thing." He paused, searching the hazel-green eyes pinned intently on him. "Trust me. Talking about it can help." Sam swallowed, then swallowed again. "I..I never told anyone," he whispered. "Not mom or dad or even Tom." He took a deep breath and exhaled, then met Al's dark gaze. Slowly, almost ashamedly, word by word, he exposed the long hidden memory and his fear to the light of day. Al didn't interrupt, just listened and understood. He saw how a deliberately cruel childish prank had forged and refined his friend's innate ability to understand and feel for the underdog. When Sam finally finished, they stood in silence. Needing something to occupy his mind and hands, Sam opened the refrigerator and took out a package of ground meat, a head of lettuce, a tomato and some cucumbers. Bumping the door shut with his elbow, he set the items on the table. Finding a bowl he mixed the meat with salt and pepper, then shaped several hamburger patties. Putting them in a skillet over a low heat, he began making two small salads. Finally, Sam said the first thing that came to mind to break the silence still hanging in the air. "You know, I haven't had much time to think about it since I leaped in yesterday, but has Ziggy come up with any idea as to what I'm here to do? Besides trying to hold onto my sanity?" Al took the cigar out of his mouth and fixed Sam with a certain look. But before he spoke, he entered a long string of codes on the handlink and waited. Finally, he spoke. "Ziggy says that when you stood up to Howard a few minutes ago, you improved the probability from sixty-eight percent to an eighty-nine point three nine percent probability that you're here to get Perry away from his father so he can get the help that he needs." Al glanced at Sam, glad to see a more positive expression on his face. He continued. "She says if you do that, there's a seventy-one percent probability that he'll go on to lead a relatively normal life... considering what his life has been like up to this point." Sam felt his anger begin to stir at the reason for his presence in Perry Kirkwood's life. Quickly he doused it with a mental exercise of pure quantum mathematical logic, and redirected his thoughts. Checking the pantry cupboard again, he found a package of Kraft macaroni and cheese and began preparing it. Next he set the table. As he took plates and glasses from a cupboard, something occurred to him. He glanced at Al. "What happened to Perry in the original history?" "I was wondering when you were going to get to that," Al said, taking the cigar out of his mouth. Sam noticed he didn't bother to look at the handlink. "From what Ziggy's been able to come up with," Al began, "Perry disappeared on August 16, 1963 and was never seen or heard from again." Sam paused as he turned the hamburgers. "Are you sure? >From what I've been through so far, I'm surprised his father lets him go to school alone. God knows how he'll react when Perry leaves for college." Al kept his face straight. He wasn't sure Sam was ready to hear about Howard's views on that subject. "He didn't have anything to say about it," Al replied. He watched Sam's face as he said, "Howard Kirkwood died that same night." Sam hated responses like that. It always meant that whatever he was here to do was about to get a little tougher to accomplish. "What happened?" "The house burned down sometime near midnight on the 16th," Al said. "But according to the autopsy report, the fire didn't kill him." "How did he die?" Al exhaled a long stream of smoke before answering. "The back of his skull was crushed by a single blow from a baseball bat." The kitchen was quiet for a few minutes as Sam finished turning the hamburgers. He put ice in two glasses and filled them with water and set them on the table. A couple of times he made eye contact with the Observer but said nothing. Finally, as he was removing the burgers from the skillet he spoke. "Was the killer ever arrested?" "Everybody in town thought Perry did it," Al said quietly. "But he disappeared, and even after a state-wide and nationwide manhunt he was never found. It's like he disappeared off the face of the earth." He went to stand beside his friend, noting the concentration on his face. "Sam? You okay?" Sam glanced up from his reverie. "Yeah, I'm fine." Something occurred to him and he said, "You better have Gooshie adjust our mind sync." "Already done," Al responded. He was more than a bit leery of broaching the subject, not wanting to be the trigger for another outbreak by Aaron. "Why? You getting a headache?" "No." Al pulled the handlink from his pocket. "Well, I'm gonna go back..." "No," Sam said a bit too quickly. "Stay. Please?" Al nodded. "No problem," he said, noting how quickly the subtle shading of fear in his friend's eyes vanished with his answer. Supper was a strained, almost silent occasion. When the meal was finished, Howard left the table and went into the living room to watch television. Al stayed until after Sam finished in the kitchen then took a shower. Only when his friend was finally in bed, falling quickly into an exhausted sleep, did the Observer silently summon the Imaging Chamber door and return to the future.