"Rebirth" Part I ~~~~~~ June, 2002 Northfield, MN The sound of a doorbell brought him back into consciousness an hour later. He moaned at the intrusion as he pushed his unwilling body into an upright position and glanced around, blinking rapidly to clear his vision and his mind. He glanced down at the picture in his arms in surprise, as if realizing he couldn't remember how it had got there, then set it back on the table as the bell rang again. "Okay, okay," he muttered, slipping his shoes on and tying the laces before going to answer the door. He opened it to see the back of a woman who, apparently giving up on him ever coming, had started to return to her car. His eyes widened in surprise and he shoved the screen door open, the sound attracting her attention. She turned and smiled brightly. He returned the gesture with less effort than he'd have thought necessary and stepped out onto the porch. "Verbena!" She accepted his outstretched hand and hugged him warmly. "Oh, it's good to see you, Al," she murmured against his shoulder, squeezing him firmly before allowing him to pull away. "This is definitely a surprise," he announced, holding the door open. She entered and he followed her in. "Have a seat. Can I get you something?" "Tea?" she asked. He grinned the way he had that made him look 1/2 his age and indicated for her to sit down. "Sure. Sorry it took me so long to answer, but I guess I fell asleep on the couch." Al entered the kitchen and opened a cupboard. "Any preference?" "Doesn't matter," she replied, turning away from him to stare out at the lake. "I hope I'm not an inconvenience," she said worriedly, "but I was quite literally in the neighborhood for a conference this past weekend, and I hadn't heard from you in so long..." "Oh, I'm glad you came," he stated honestly, setting water on the stove to boil. "In fact, I haven't eaten yet; can I persuade you to stay for dinner?" She twisted to look at him. "Oh, Al, I can't." His smile lost some of its energy. "C'mon. I'm not really that bad a cook." Her gaze reverted to the vase of calla lilies to her left and the picture next to them. "Al, I heard about Beth." There was silence for several very long seconds. "When?" he asked softly. "Not long after. January." He released a heavy breath. "Yeah, well...these things happen." She wasn't convinced by the words, but the resignation in his tone worried her. "I'm...sorry I waited so long to come by." The kettle started to whistle and he lifted it and poured some water into a cup for her. "Well," he said in sympathy, "you two were close. You had your own grieving to do." He walked around and handed her the drink, moving to sit in the armchair, but then changing his mind at her expression. He sat next to her and touched her arm comfortingly. "It's okay that you never came by here, hon. Things have been...changing so fast. Besides, I guess I've been guilty of the same fault. I apologize deeply for not trying to contact you so you could be there for the funeral. I did think of it, but Beth has her own system around here and I couldn't find the damn address or phone number, and then..." He took a steadying breath. "I'm sorry." "Well, goodness, Al, you-" "Don't," he said firmly. She stopped and looked into his eyes. "Don't feel sorry for me." "Right," she said quietly, turning from the intensity of his gaze. To cover for her uneasiness, she took a sip of her tea. "It's good," she said, lifting the cup in salute, "thanks. You're not having any?" He moved back slightly. "I've got some coffee on - don't really ever drink tea." He shrugged. "Beth was the one who drank it." "You're serving your guest tea that's half a year old?" she demanded in mock horror. "Naw..." he returned, not responding to her attempt at humor, "I just can't seem to stop buying it." A sheepish grin crossed his features. "Every other week, like clockwork. That, and fresh flowers." He nodded to the vase and she eyed it somberly. "Usually end up giving it to my neighbor." It took her a minute to realize he was talking about the tea, not the calla lilies. "You know what? I think I will stay for dinner. I'll just get a later start home." "You sure?" His actual question was clear: `Are you doing this because you feel pity for me?' She smiled calmly. "Yeah, I'm sure. Maybe we can talk about Beth," she suggested. He looked uncertain at the idea, but they chatted easily about various topics while he prepared their meal. She sat on a stool on the other side of the counter from him while he worked. "I heard you stopped going up to D.C.," she commented after a while. He lifted his hands in a plea for understanding. "The nozzles wouldn't listen. And...when Beth died, I just gave up." He focused intently on the onions sauteing in the pan in front of him. Verbena sensed there was some connection between the two occurrences: Beth's demise and his acceptance of defeat, but she was unable to discern what it was. "Funding is a lost dream, `Bena. Besides, Sam's probably long gone by this point." "Gone as in...?" "Gone as in gone," he emphasized without answering her question. "Look, can we talk about something else?" That topic effectively closed, they spoke of inconsequential things until finally sitting down to dinner. "How's Gavin?" he asked, then laughed. "Gavin and Verbena - geez, how do you guys come up with these names?" "Wait `til we start having children," she teased with a wide smile. "He's good. We had our first anniversary two months ago." "Oh, hey, I'm sorry - I forgot." "You were busy," she said simply and he smiled weakly. "Neither of us could really take the time off to go anywhere, but we had a little celebration of our own." "Well, that's-" He broke off as the phone, mounted on the wall next to the stool Verbena had been sitting on, started ringing. "The machine'll get it," he said, waving it off. Nonetheless, there was a pause in the conversation as they listened to Al's impersonal greeting via the recording. When it had ended, a female voice came over the speaker. "Dad? It's Marina. I guess you're out for the evening..." Al hesitated, obviously not wanting to be impolite, but Verbena smiled gently and released him from his duties as a host. "Maybe you should get that," she said. "I was just calling to confirm your flight plans for this weekend," Al's oldest daughter continued cheerfully. "I really ought to," he apologized and got up quickly to pick up before Marina could finish leaving her message. "Hey, hon," he said into the phone. Verbena watched him, trying not to be obvious about it. She loved seeing Al around his kids - a magical transition always fell over him and he became gentle and protective all at once. And proud; always proud. "No, no, I just have a friend over for dinner," he was saying. "Doctor Beeks - excuse me - Owens." She chuckled. "Everything's still on for the weekend. I've got to go, but I'll see you then, okay?" He smiled at Verbena, shrugging slightly. "Okay...love you, too." He hung up and rejoined the psychiatrist. "I'm spending a week or so up there," he explained. "She invited me up for my birthday." "Oh, right," she said, brightening, "it's coming up on the-" "Fifteenth," Al said quickly, as if to save her the embarrassment of being uncertain of the date. "That was nice of her." "It's been a while since I've seen her. Got to see my grandson a month or so ago when David brought him down, but she couldn't come." The words were subdued and Verbena had a feeling she knew the last time he'd been reunited with his children. How long had he been down here without friends or family? But, then, it had always been his signature to struggle through things without assistance. Still...that was two heavy blows in as many years. Verbena sat in silence for a minute, remembering when Project Quantum Leap had been shut down. Al's actions had resembled that of a madman, filing appeal after appeal without avail to the Committee, calling in favors, dealing out threats, and generally making all of D.C. dread when his plane landed. She also remembered a phone conversation with Beth a year later. "I can't get him to stop, Verbena," she'd lamented. "He's just tearing himself apart from the inside out." In spite of how much she knew he hated it, Verbena couldn't help but feel sorry for him. She stayed in his home until late - much later than she'd originally intended - before starting on the six hour drive back to her own home. On her way out, Al kissed her cheek and hugged her tightly. "I'm glad you came, hon," he murmured, and the way he looked at her made her understand that he meant it. That he'd needed it. "Me, too." She pulled out a card and scribbled her home number on the back. "Promise me you'll call, Al." He accepted it and tucked it into his breast pocket. "Sure, sure. Drive safe." Al spent the next 30 minutes cleaning the house, restoring the immaculate condition it always seemed to possess. Then, in a pattern he'd formed without entirely realizing it, he spent several minutes staring at Beth's picture, always wanting to say something, always feeling the pull to try and convey to her what was weighing so heavily on him, but never quite able to bring himself to do so. Slowly, he turned and retreated to bed. ~~~~~~ Going out of town wasn't something that he did anymore. Not that it was a problem: Al had retired from the Navy just after Beth died and he wasn't really involved in anything. Nothing seemed worth the effort. As a result, he didn't have any arrangements except to ask the neighbor's only child to pick up the mail and paper for him on a daily basis. He didn't have any meetings to cancel, no pets that needed care, nothing. He stood in the bedroom and packed without thinking, methodically pulling clothes out of one of the two dressers in the room. The other dresser was empty; there was no-one to use it. He tossed in a couple books and a little trinket he'd picked up for Marina's son the day before, then walked slowly into the living room. He reached for the picture and stared at it for several seconds. The image of his wife smiled warmly at him, full of life and promise. Al closed his eyes against the tear that slid down his cheek. It had been six months - he was _not_ going to let this happen to him. It was easier to feel nothing at all.