"Sink or Swim"
Part IV

September, 1986
Gulf of Alaska, AK

"What do you mean, she's in bad shape?" Sam demanded in hushed tones.
"Sure, she's a little woozy, but-"

"Sam," Al interrupted, gesturing to the handlink, "Allen told the Coast
Guard later that he'd been worried about her, that she hadn't been
eating or, more importantly, drinking. And you know as well as I do that
when you're around sea water, you need to keep drinking. Especially when
you take medication for motion sickness." Sam started to speak, but Al
held out his hand. "Go finish baiting those tubs before you get fired,
okay? I'll be back in a little bit."

Sam opened the door to go out on deck. "Okay, just hurry back.
Apparently we don't have too much more to do."

"Yeah, you'll probably be out there another hour, maybe more if the
weather keeps getting worse. You'll have to redo what you've already

Sam groaned. "Why can't we just do it after the weather gets calm?"

"Because," Al explained patiently, "then you'll lose time that could be
spent fishing." He continued quickly, cutting off Sam's inevitable
protest, "Just go do your job. I'll catch you in an hour or two."

"Right," Sam mumbled, and went back out into the rain and wind.

Al cast Sam a sympathetic look as he went, thankful their positions
weren't reversed. He lifted the `link to punch out, then changed his
mind and walked towards the back of the cabin to Kate's room.

She was curled up in the fetal position on top of her sleeping bag with
a book propped up in front of her eyes, but she wasn't reading. Instead,
her gaze was locked on the porthole, a miserable look in her eyes. Kate
sighed as if giving into something, then slid her legs into the sleeping
bag and faced the door leading out onto the deck. The paperback drooped
in front of her. From her vantage point, Al thought, she couldn't have
been able to see more than just the top left corner of the hatch.

"Now I understand cabin fever," she sighed to herself and tucked her
wool sweater under her head as a makeshift pillow.

Al squinted at her, trying to gather any additional information for Sam
that he could. "Just relax, hon," he said aloud, even though he knew she
couldn't hear him. "Sam'll work it all out for you - you just need to
hang in there."

As if she could hear his reassurances, her eyes drifted shut and her
breathing began to even out slightly, but he suspected as the weather
worsened, she wouldn't be able to sleep at all for fear of being tossed
around. Why nobody ever created bunks with seat belts, he'd never know.
The sound of the outside hatch door opening reverberated all the way
back to them and she opened her eyes quickly and sat up, pulling the
book back up.

Elliot entered and spared her a brief glance as he changed the music in
the tape player hooked to the outside speakers. "Still working hard?" he

Al was starting to get tired of hearing the question. "Just ignore him,"
he advised, "he's a real nozzle."

"Sure thing." For an instant, Al thought she had heard him. Then she
smiled sweetly at Elliot and Al could see little or no trace of her
discomfort. Elliot grunted and nodded before returning to his work, and
she sighed and laid back down again.

Al eyed her worriedly. "No wonder nobody really had any heads-up on
this. You're very convincing," he added to the young woman. His
subconscious tugged at him again and he remembered Karen waiting in
Stallion Springs for him. "I'll be back," he promised her. "For
goodness' sake, take care of yourself, sweetheart." With those words, he
punched out.

November, 1999
Stallions Gate, NM

Al hated to do what he was getting ready to do, but he knew Sam would
need him again soon to try and get to work on helping Kate and he just
didn't have the time to spare going the hour (40 minutes, if he really
laid on the gas, which he was more likely to do) in and out of town
every time he wanted to speak with Karen.

So, instead, he arranged for quarters for her on the upper level of the
project, treated her to a quick lunch in Santa Fe, and headed back to
the project.

Karen sat silently in the seat beside him, staring out the window as
they drove. "Where are we going?"

He cast her a sidelong glance. "Military complex. I work near there and
they've got a room for you. You can stay there while you're in New

Now she looked at him with bright, intelligent eyes. "You said you'd
take me back to Cary's."

He sighed and gripped the steering wheel more tightly. He should have
known this wasn't going to be so easy. "Karen..."

"No, just tell me why you lied to me."

"I didn't lie to you," Al insisted. "I was just hoping-"

"You were hoping to change my mind about it." She resumed her watch as
the desolate, yet somehow serene land passed by them. Remote patches of
life flourished in random patterns across the desert floor and she
focused her attention almost passionately on the small clumps of
vegetation. "You really came to get me to convince me to go back home,
didn't you? Is that what my father asked you to do?"

"Your father wanted me to help make things right between you."

"He told you to send me home." It wasn't a question and Al chewed on his
lower lip, trying to find a diplomatic answer.

He couldn't. "Yes."

"You don't understand what's going on here. You've been gone for years,

Inwardly, Al winced. But he had no responsibility to hang around with
this girl, not like her mother had.

"What do you know?" she asked quietly, tentatively, as if afraid of the

Al maneuvered the car onto the side of the road despite the fact that it
wasn't exactly a high traffic area to begin with, and turned off the
ignition as the dust began to settle along the length of his Ferrari. He
twisted in his seat, pulling off his seat belt, and faced her. "He told
me your mother's been gone for three years, now, that she left you guys
and hasn't been in touch much. He told me about the night you left, that
he'd been yelling at you for something that wasn't your fault, and that
he regrets it."

Now she faced straight ahead, her hands clenching her arms tightly. "He
didn't...tell you what the fight was about?"

He leaned against his seat and touched her shoulder carefully. She
didn't respond positively or negatively to the action or to him. "No, he

"He didn't tell you about Nick? Or why my mother left?"

Nick was her older brother, a year and a half older. Al had never known
him as well as Karen, but he knew the two of them had been close growing
up. "He told me Nick died some time ago."

Karen nodded slowly, her eyes locked on some distant point, bright in
the desert sun. "Did he tell you Nick died a little over three years
ago? Did he tell you that-" Here, her composure slipped for the first
time since he'd picked her up from her hotel room, and she stopped,
blinking rapidly and wiping away any moisture before it could be
released. "That I let him die?"

The reassuring pressure on her shoulder loosened slightly from Al's
surprise. "What do you mean?"

She shrugged his hand away completely and leaned away from him against
the door of the car. Then, as if she was suffocating in the heavy air,
she fumbled frantically with the handle and tumbled out into the warm

He got out after her, crossing hurriedly over to where she stood, bent
over with the weight she was bearing on her own. "Karen?" he asked in
concern, afraid to touch her.

"It's my fault," she gasped between violent breaths. She looked as if
she was going to pass out.

Now he did touch her, guiding her to the hard ground, trying to calm her
down enough to speak with. "Karen. Karen, hon, just relax, okay? Just

"I'm - I'm sorry." She leaned against the passenger's door, steadying

Al knelt down in front of her, holding her face in his hands until she
met his even gaze. "Don't be sorry. I just want to understand what's
going on here. Why do you say it's your fault? Was your father blaming
you the night you left?" She nodded and a tear finally slid free.
"Honey, he told me it wasn't your fault, that he was wrong. He made a

"No," she pulled back, shaking her head and staring at her knees. "No,
he didn't. It's my fault - the whole thing's my fault!"

He clasped her hand firmly in his. "Tell me what happened."

Her free hand cradled her opposite elbow tightly, pulling herself
inwards. "We were...at the lake my grandmother lives at, swimming out
back. There was no-one else home: Mom, Dad, and Grandma had gone out to
run some errands or something, I don't remember. And Nick, he-" She
choked and he steadied her as best as he could.

"Take it easy. There's no rush," he said soothingly, praying he was
right and Sam and Kate would be okay on their own for a while.

"He had a seizure and passed out," she explained as she started to
shake. "I - I panicked. I didn't know what to do: I was just frozen,
staring at him. I should have... God, I've gone over this so many times!
I should have pulled him out of the water, gotten help, called 911,
something! But I didn't, and he drowned. Oh, Al, I killed him!"

Al crouched next to her in the dirt and pulled her close, letting her
emotions spill out into the vast nothingness of the desert. "No. No,
Karen, you didn't. It was an accident, a mistake, but you didn't kill

"I did! It was my fault!" She gripped Al's sleeve in her fist and turned
his words of comfort away, releasing only aching sobs against his

September, 1986
Gulf of Alaska, AK

"You about ready for me to cook up some dinner?" Sam asked as cheerfully
as he could manage. In actuality, his back ached, his cut thumb
throbbed, and he was exhausted. Baiting tubs was as monotonous as Al had
promised it would be and he wondered if Al had ever done it before.

She laid on her back in her bunk and stretched. She didn't look
particularly distressed, physically or emotionally, but Al's prediction
rang in his ears and he couldn't ignore it. Still, maybe Ziggy was
wrong. "Not right now; maybe later. Did Steve say how much longer it's
going to be this bad?"

Sam tossed his glove linings into the washing machine in their
stateroom. "No, but we didn't finish the tubs. He said it was getting
too bad to be out there, plus we were spending as much time redoing it
as doing it."

Her grin was mischievous. "Then how you gonna cook? I can see pot roast
flying everywhere..."

"Didn't think of that..." he said before he realized that it would be
something Allen definitely thought of.

With impeccable timing, Steve emerged in the doorway. "Better eat now,
while you can," he advised them.

"Hey, now," Elliot countered from the galley, "the microwave may attack
you, but you can still eat!"

Even Sam smiled a little at the comment. He turned to Kate as Steve
turned to attend to his own dinner, assuming this meant he wouldn't be
cooking anything. "You coming?"

She shook her head. "Naw, I'm fine... I'll just sit here and ride it
out, I guess. I'll eat when my food doesn't move if I put it down for a

"Why don't you get outta this room and join me in the galley?" Sam
suggested casually. "We must have something relatively safe to eat -
like an apple or something."

She looked about to resist, then the sounds of the TV filled their room
as Elliot started a movie going. She sighed reluctantly, but watching a
movie promised little activity, and possibly a chance to lie down on the
benches in the galley. She got up, tossing the book aside. "Sure.
Depressing play, anyhow."

Sam chuckled, encouraged by her attempts. "With our luck, he'll be
watching the movie adaptation."

"Oh, that's not a problem," she said with a grin, "it just loses
something on paper. Loses a _lot_ on paper," she added and entered the
galley, striking up a conversation with Steve, leaving Sam to wonder if
he'd just missed some inside joke. Then, with a shrug, he followed her

[Quick explanation about that last part: While I was on one boat, I got
incredibly bored and a deckhand directed me to a stack of books, one of
which was the play "Long Days Journey Into Night", a movie/play Dean was
in. Guess which book I read....? -amkt]