"The Final Chapter" pt. VII

July, 2002
Charleston, SC

  Al entered the restaurant slowly, glancing around the crowded
room for a familiar face. In spite of the anguish that had
settled itself in his stomach over the daily part of his life
that had, once again, been removed, he felt pretty good about
this meeting. He had felt bad about leaving Sam in that place
without guidance for so long, but Verbena insisted she would take
over in case things got bad, and besides, Sam himself had been
adamant that Al go. 
  He anxiously felt around in the pocket of his slate grey slacks
for a cigar before recalling that the lobby of the restaurant was
probably non-smoking. And he knew Beth no longer smoked, so there
was no telling if he would be able to light up at all. He settled
for clasping his hands tightly in front of himself and moving
through the room.
  He stopped dead, his eyebrows raised in surprise, as he spotted
a woman sitting alone in the far corner, a lit cigarette dangling
in a shaky hand. If anyone should be familiar with shifting time
lines, he thought dryly to himself as he moved towards her. She
glanced up and caught his eye as he approached, crushing the butt
in the ashtray in front of her. Judging by the size of the
smoldering mass, she had been here for some time. 
  Beth stood up as he pulled off his jacket and draped it over
the back of his chair and she extended a hand. He looked blankly
at it for a moment and then took it, wondering absently how long
this level of formality would last, evaluating how much harder
this was going to be if it remained. He took the opportunity to
give her a long, steady look in the eyes. It was pretty bad.
  He released her first and they sat. "How long have you been
here?" he asked, opening up the conversation on neutral ground. 
  She indicated the ashtray with a wry smile. "A while," she
admitted. "Why did you want to see me?"
  "I had to talk to you."
  "Why?" she demanded, a little vehemently. Then she sighed and
reached for another cigarette.
  He considered the question while she lit up and then dropped
his gaze. Damn, this was hard... "I know this is going to sound a
little odd," he began, borrowing from Sam's customary script,
"but I needed to know how the last few years have been for you. I
needed to know...if you were happy."
  She leaned forward and rested her chin on her hand. "You mean
if I regret not-"
  "No," he cut her off with a wave of his hand. "That's history."
It was hard to accept that what had happened all those years ago
when he'd come home was something he'd finally resolved. Resolved
with _her_, in fact. But now, for her, it was all still an
untouchable subject laced with pain. He ran a hand across his
face and took a deep breath, trying again. "I want to know about
the last five years of your life. Anything and everything. I need
to know if..." He trailed off and shrugged helplessly. 
  She looked up knowingly. "Does this have anything to do with
the line of work you're in?"
  Geez, she was fast! "Yeah."
  "You're not going to tell me what's going on, are you?"
  "I think it would be better if I didn't, no." He contemplated
her a moment longer. "Sorry."
  She smothered the last cigarette and then stood up. "Suddenly,
I don't have much of an appetite. Would you like to go for a
  He grinned slightly. "Sure."
  Silent wanderings took them to the boardwalk by the beach. It
was just starting to get dark and Beth pulled on the sweater she
had brought with her, wrapping her arms in a painfully protective
gesture about herself. Al winced at the motion. Even though the
ocean breeze cooled things down considerably, it was still July
in South Carolina and wasn't cold enough to warrant the way she
was hugging herself. And it didn't help, he thought, that she had
inadvertently taken them to the very place they had spent
countless evenings in the other timeline getting to know each
other again before re-marrying.
  "So?" he asked finally, breaking the long silence that had
begun to feel oppressive to them both. "You gonna talk to me?"
  Beth moved in front of his path and sat down on a cold bench
facing the sea. "I don't know what to talk about. What do you
want to know?"
  He shrugged and sat down next to her, clasping his hands in his
lap. "How are things with Dirk?" She flinched at the question and
he again reminded himself that things were still largely
unresolved for her. He ran a finger across his bottom lip and
twisted to sit at an angle, facing her. She wouldn't look at him.
"Listen, honey, you don't have to fear for my feelings, okay?
Trust me. I know you and you're just going to have to believe me
when I say I understand and that you don't have to pick and
choose what you say in front of me."
  The look she cast him said she didn't entirely believe him, no
matter how much she may want to. "I don't know," she said
finally, carefully. "It's hard."
  He almost reached for her, but aborted the gesture suddenly,
not without some frustration at the self-imposed restraint.
  She continued, not seeming to notice. "I just don't know how
much longer I can go on like this, Al." Her tone was pleading and
he noted it was the first time she had addressed him by name.
  "Like what? With Dirk?"
  She shook her head in irritation at her clumsiness with words.
"No, I mean, Dirk's part of it, but that's not what I mean. He
and I, though, we were going to get a divorce before I...left.
And then when I got back, well, he said that he didn't think I
should be alone. And things got really good between us again. But
now..." She sighed and finally adjusted her position to face him.
"Now it's just back to how it was before I left. We don't get a
moment's peace."
  "Beth," Al interjected, a disconcerting thought crossing his
mind, "does he know you're here tonight?"
  She dropped her gaze at the question, focusing on her hands
twisting anxiously in her lap. "No."
  He frowned at her. "Doesn't he trust you?"
  "Oh, Al, I don't know. What does it matter?"
  "I think it matters a hell of a lot," he responded, trying
ineffectively to counteract her apathy. Then he lowered his
voice. "Do you still love him?"
  She raised her head to meet his eyes and smiled through the
pain. "You're not going to ask me if I loved him when I married
  "I told you, that's history. And I know you loved him then,
otherwise you wouldn't have married him," he answered without
  Her eyes widened in amazement and he wasn't sure whether to be
angry or pleased at her surprise. "I don't know," she said,
responding to his earlier question.
  "Do you trust him?" he asked, trying the opposite tack.
  "Sort of."
  "Sort of?" he echoed.
  "I guess so," she amended.
  "You don't sound too sure of that," he noted placidly. "Is he
cheating on you?"
  She laughed bitterly. "No."
  "You sure?"
  "Dirk could never lie to me. And he could never do something
like that; he's just not capable of it." 
  Al covered an internal flinch at those words. When he was
married to her, he never thought he could be capable of it,
either, but then he had married again. And again. And... 
  Somewhere along the way, marriage had lost it's sanctity. Until
he re-married Beth.
  "In a way," she resumed, "it would be easier if he was. At
least that would be something tangible to fight."
  "So what is it?"
  "What are you, my therapist now?" she demanded, but her voice
only held the barest hint of annoyance. He raised an eyebrow.
"It's everything," she relented. "We fight all the time, and we
both work and everything's just so hard. And..." She bit her lip
and wiped her eyes. "Why do you want to know this, Al?"
  "I just want to help." He slid an inch closer. "Tell me how you
feel, Beth." He could see it on the edge, screaming to get out.
And he had the feeling, judging from the heavy look in her eyes
and the dark circles they produced, that marital difficulties
with Dirk was the least of her problems. Therapist or not, she
had been held prisoner for a year and he wondered if she had had
the opportunity to speak to anyone who understood that. And that,
he _definitely_ understood.
  "I just feel so tired," she replied, her voice barely above a
whisper. Then, suddenly, the rest came out in a frantic rush. "I
just don't want to do this anymore, Al. I can't take it. What do
you do when everything's too much? You can't stop it from coming,
you can't turn your back on it all. I'm just so, so tired." She
drew a breath that could have been covering a gasp or a sob. "I
just want it all to stop."
  Al felt his heart beat faster at the words. It was those
feelings that drove people to take their own lives. He'd come
fairly close to choosing that option a time or two himself. It
was the craving for escape that had led him to the bottle. Escape
from something that was buried so deep inside of you that running
didn't help; you had to silence those voices from the inside.
Alcohol had worked, but not for long. Sleep worked too, because
when you slept, you couldn't feel. But then nightmares robbed you
of even that and that's when barriers of logic and reason seemed
to break down.
  "Do you have nightmares?" he asked, cupping her chin in his
  She looked at him, her eyes filled with tears. She nodded, not
trusting herself to speak.
  "How bad are they?" It became a vast effort to keep his own
words steady.
  "Bad," she answered, and her voice broke.
  "Do you remember what happened to you there?" he said,
recalling an interview with Alia what now seemed like eons ago in
which she said she hadn't remembered a thing. Whether he had
consciously admitted it or not, it had been that confession that
plagued him, in both time lines. "Or do you remember in your
sleep what you've blocked out while you're awake?"
  She stared at him in amazement and, briefly, the flood of tears
she had been holding back became slightly easier to restrain.
  "Beth," he said gently, responding to the look, "I've been
there too, remember? Only when it happened to me, I didn't have
anyone to talk to except a bottle. And as a result, I kept
company with one for a long time. I don't want to see that happen
to you." He held up his other hand to forestall the inevitable
comment. "Don't apologize for that, sweetie, it wasn't your
  He removed his hand from her face and she grasped it suddenly,
holding onto him as if it was her only lifeline. "I don't want to
do this anymore, Al. I don't want to fight anymore." He knew, in
an instant, that she wasn't referring to Dirk. He also knew, no
matter how much distance he had been trying to maintain because
she was, after all, a married woman, that somewhere in recent
moments he had lost that distance. And it didn't really matter.
  "I know you're tired, sweetheart. I know." He pulled her to him
and, for a moment, she resisted. Then she surrendered to the need
to be comforted, to be with someone who understood what she was
going through. She couldn't understand how he had possibly
survived without that. "Just don't give up, please." He stroked
her hair in comfortable familiarity. "Please."
  The ease with which he held onto her almost made her more
uncomfortable and she tilted her head to free her face of the
heavy coat he wore. "Why are you really here, Al?" she asked
slowly once she had regained some measure of control over her
voice. "What changed?"
  His chest heaved with a long sigh and she heard the first trace
of pain thus far in his words when he spoke. "I'm not sure it's 
a good idea to burden you with that."
  "Please tell me," she implored, clutching his arm tightly.
  "Well," - another sigh - "it's a long story, but, for me, a
couple of days ago you weren't in Charleston." She closed her
eyes, listening to his heart rate accelerate. He was starting to
speak with more difficulty, too. "You were in New Mexico. With
me. Dirk died five years ago and you weren't at that other
project for a year. You were only there a couple weeks at most.
And, about six months ago, you and I re-married."
  The tears she had successfully held back earlier came now and
she was certain she heard Al choke back a sob also as he held
her, tracing his hand slowly up and down her arm. 
  Darkness settled in completely around them and, for a moment,
each of them forgot the rest of the world waiting for them to
continue on with their lives. The acute guilt Beth had felt about
meeting Al when she was still married to Dirk vanished, as did
Al's hesitation about getting too close to her when he knew she
was no longer his. They just set it all aside and waited together
for healing to come.

  Al stared out the window. He had flown to Charleston, but
refused the helm on the ride back. Now, his co-pilot was up
front, handling the small plane with her usual efficiency. Al
needed some time to think.
  He hadn't realized just how long he and Beth had sat out there
until glancing at his watch after walking her home. She had tried
to convince him to leave, but the last thing he wanted to do was
leave her out by herself at such a late hour. When he told her
that, she just smiled at his decidedly paternal gesture and let
him wrap his arm around her shoulders in the name of warmth when
they both knew it was more than that. With that acceptance, they
had made their first conscious step into very dangerous
territory, though neither of them would admit it to themselves or
each other.
  The warm hug they shared at the edge of her driveway, too, was
more than they would admit to. What he really wanted to do was
kiss her and hold her and make everything the way it had been
before Melana changed it. That was the way it was _supposed_ to
  Al took a deep breath and let it out slowly, watching the
lights of Atlanta come into view underneath. His own anguish had
been pushed effectively to the background while he was with her,
simply because her own terrible need was sharper than his own.
He'd given her his office number and made her promise to use it
if she needed to talk about anything. Made her promise over and
over not to make any drastic decisions without calling him. But
now, after feeling the intense passion well up inside of him at
her house, he just felt empty.
  He would have to convince Sam. If, God help them all, Beth did
something, if her own sense of insanity drove her to the brink,
he would never be able to forgive himself for it. And if Sam
asked why he would sacrifice all those other people for her,
well, he would just have to be honest with his friend. It was
  "I love her," he whispered. Even as the utterance left him, he
knew Sam would never accept that reason as enough. And the
diminishing rational corner of his mind had to agree.
  The plane jolted sharply, pulling him out of his thoughts and
he reached for his buckle.
  "Sir?" Al glanced up to see Jane...somebody standing in the
entranceway to the cockpit.
  "If you're here, who's drivin' the plane?" he quipped with as
much spirit as he could find within himself.
  "Uh, well, about that..." She was gripping the entranceway with
a death grip, he noted. "I think you should come take a look at