CHAPTER THREE The delicious smells of newly baked bread and freshly brewed coffee wafted into Sam's nostrils. He better get up and start the milking or Dad would have his hide. No, that was a long time ago. He didn't do that anymore. He opened his eyes, and jerked up in the bed, panicking, unable to think where he might be. Then he saw the scruffy denim jacket neatly folded on a chair and the awful platform shoes beneath. Memories flooded his mind. Brian Palmer, that's who he was. He relaxed back onto the pillows of the big bed, pleased he had remembered. His stomach growled emptily and his mouth was as dry as the New Mexico desert but he ignored them, not wanting to face the world. Looking around the bedroom, he noted the quality of the deceptively simple furnishings. Good colonial reproductions, no frills or furbelows, the room definitely had a masculine flavor. That guy at the hotel - what was his name? David. Yes, that was it - David must be pretty well off to afford this place. He remembered more of the previous day. Al had behaved really weird - even for Al. What was it he had yelled just before he'd disappeared? Something about having been here, too. He wondered when, and why Al had been so upset. Probably some woman. It usually was with Al. His mind turned to his own situation and he wondered again why he was here. A vacation? No chance. He never got vacations, only work, continuous hard grind, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. No holidays - not ever - not even one day at Christmas. His mouth twisted. His employer - the Someone - was more hard-hearted than Scrooge, not even Bob Cratchitt had to work on Christmas Day. That girl had to be wrong. *I must be here to do something. Where are you when I need you, Al?* If only he knew what was going on at the Project. Perhaps Ziggy was still playing up. That would explain why Al had not reappeared. His mind began to whirl, so he thrust the memories of the previous day away and concentrated on the present. His stomach rumbled again, even more insistently than before. He had to find the source of the wonderful odors attacking his nose. He pushed off the bedcovers and realised he was still wearing the jeans and shirt. Standing did not make his head spin and he wasn't as tired as yesterday. Feeling vaguely pleased with himself, he wandered through the open door in his bare feet, rebelling at the thought of the platform shoes, enjoying the feel of the warm, polished timber floor, out into the main living area of the cabin. As in the bedroom, the furniture was of a good, yet simple, quality. On a small side-table next to a comfortable-looking couch stood a carved chess set similar to the one at the girl's house. Here, too, there were lots of books, mainly old hardcovers, some bound with leather, most of which were crowded into a couple of bookcases set either side of a large picture window. Then the view grabbed his attention and he stared at the panorama before him. The cabin was built on a ridge, surrounded by trees descending towards a distant lake, whose waters glittered in the early afternoon sunshine. This was set against a backdrop of dark wooded hills, rising ever higher into hazy, shadowy mountains. The scene seemed familiar and he struggled to remember why. Try as he would, nothing definite came into his mind, only a vague happy feeling. Then he realised the lake and mountains were different shapes from those in his memories. This was not the same place as the one he almost remembered. Soft singing in pleasant contralto voice made him drag himself from the view. The girl was standing with her back to him washing dishes. She turned to pick up more dirty crockery from the bench that divided the kitchen from the living area, and stopped singing abruptly as she noticed him. "Hi," said Sam warily. "Hi," said the girl, her face breaking into a welcoming smile. "So, you're awake at last. How are you feeling?" "Fine, er, fine, thanks." Sam's stomach gave an audible growl. "Something smells really good," he said with a rather embarrassed grin. "Um, I'm famished and my mouth feels like I'vebeen eating sand." The girl's eyes twinkled. "Well, I should think so. You must be half-starved and completely dehydrated. You've been asleep for nearly two days." He gaped as she went to the refrigerator, took out a large jug of water and poured a glass. "TWO DAYS?" "Uh-huh." She held out the glass. "Here, drink. Sip slowly, you'll find it quenches your thirst more than if you gulp." Sam drew his brows together. He knew that. But he took the glass eagerly and sipped the icy water, swirling it around his mouth, moistening dry tissues, before letting it trickle slowly down his parched throat. "Just what I needed. Thanks." The girl sliced the crust off the new loaf that sat on the bench and spread it thickly with honey. "Here you go. This should stave off the pangs of hunger for a while." He finished his water, then bit into the still warm bread. It was delicious, crunchy and hard on the outside, soft and yielding within. "Mmm, this is wonderful," he mumbled in between bites. The girl poured him more water. "Why don't you go have a shower while I fix something a little more substantial. The shower and loo are back there," and she nodded in the direction of the bedroom. "Okay." He walked away with the glass in one hand whilst licking the fingers of the other, puzzling a little over the odd word she had used. What on earth is a loo? "I must reek to high heaven." "By the way, you've dripped honey all down your shirt." Sam automatically looked down. There was no sign of honey spreading on his front. "Gotcha," said the girl, grinning. Sam didn't think anyone but Al had teased him like that in a long time. * * * * * He took time to shave as well as shower, using the razor and foam he found on the marble-topped vanity in the bathroom. Removing the stubble from the reflection's face was immensely pleasurable, even if the chin did look weaker than ever. After finding fresh flared jeans and a shirt in the wardrobe, Sam felt better than he remembered feeling in ages. When he went back to the living room, the girl was carefully sliding an omelet out of a pan onto a plate. The cedar dining-table was only laid with one place and he sat down at it, hunger taking precedence over manners, merely asking, "Aren't you eating?" "No," Helen replied, setting the omelet in front of him. "I had something earlier while you were still asleep. You go ahead. I'll just have coffee." She sat on the chair next to Sam and poured coffee for them both, then sipped while he ate, hiding her smile behind her mug as he dived into his meal with enthusiasm. The omelet was perfectly cooked - light and fluffy with a sprinkling of fresh herbs and black pepper. It was the best thing Sam had tasted in years, apart from possibly the bread and honey. These were also on the table, together with butter and home-made strawberry preserve as good as his Mom's. There was orange juice to drink along with the coffee. Helen raised an eyebrow as she saw he didn't put butter on his bread or milk in his coffee, making a mental note not to use them in future. He liked her preserve though, slathering it generously on slice after slice of her crusty bread. Sam ate at first with intense concentration, giving his plate his complete attention. However as the yawning void in his middle diminished, he began to wonder about the girl sitting so composedly beside him. Who on earth was she? There were so many questions he ought to ask, but he backed away from having to think and remained silent. Besides, it would seem rude to cross-examine her after all she had done for him. He finally pushed away his plate and leaned back in his chair with a contented sigh. "That was wonderful. You're a great cook." His curiosity got the better of him and he asked, "Are you some sort of professional chef?" Helen laughed. "Oh no, I learned from my Mom. She ran her own restaurant, though she'd never had any formal training. She loved to experiment with this and that, trying different combinations, and everything always turned out great." Childhood memories of her mother working busily away in the kitchen filled Helen's mind and she smiled. Then later, unhappy, memories surfaced and she pushed her chair back abruptly and took the empty plates to the sink, not wanting Sam to see her face. Fighting to regain control of her emotions, she turned on the faucet, then squirted in dishwashing liquid. Sam brought over the dirty mugs. "What can I use to dry with?" Helen cleared her throat and pushed unwanted thoughts away. "Tell you what," she said in a bright tone, "I'LL dry and you can wash, then you can see where I put things and dry next time." She forced her mind back to the present. Focussing on Sam, she was glad he was doing something for himself at last, rather than letting her do everything for him, surely a sign he was feeling better. She watched him closely while he concentrated on the dishes, trying to assess his state of health. He certainly looked better; there was more color in his face, though the hollow cheeks and dark circles were still visible. He seemed to have more energy, as well. His long sleep must have done him good. He wasn't as listless as on that first day, even if he was clumsy and did everything at half speed. She caught yet another glass that slipped as he misjudged the distance from the sink to the drainer. "Would you like a walk up to the store?" she asked quickly, before he could apologise - again. "It isn't far and we need more juice, we're nearly out." "Sure, sounds fine to me," he agreed immediately, trying to cover his awkwardness. * * * * * They started out a little later, after Helen had found Sam some sneakers. She let him set the pace, mindful of his debilitated condition, although she itched to stretch her legs into a longer stride that would burn off some energy. The tension had been growing inside her all day, partly due to her enforced inactivity and partly to the pressure of staying in control emotionally and being the cheerful, competent companion Sam needed. His dawdling pace became increasingly irritating and she made herself inhale slowly and deeply, filling her lungs, then exhale equally slowly, to dispel the irritation with the carbon dioxide. Other than to give Sam the occasional direction she remained silent, busy with her thoughts, trying to decide what to tell him - how MUCH to tell him - now it was obvious he was feeling less confused, his mind alert enough to ask questions. Sam tried to make conversation but gave up after the girl barely replied to his comments about the woods through which they walked. She didn't appear to take much notice of the surroundings, he, on the other hand, constantly surveyed the area, taking pleasure in the warm afternoon sunshine which filtered through the canopy. Occasionally, the blue of the lake flashed through the vegetation, its clear waters sparkling an invitation. It might be warm enough for a swim. The air was certainly warm, scented faintly with pine. Insects buzzed around, providing a background hum for the bird-calls that echoed through the trees. The path gradually steepened and Sam was perspiring from exertion by the time they came to a sealed road. They walked along until they arrived at a small village, a mere half dozen dwellings and tiny general store. At the store, the girl introduced him to Jimmy, a gangly youth of about fifteen, all hormones and acne, who blushed furiously when she thanked him for the trouble he'd taken at the cabin. She paid the boy for the groceries he had left, obviously including a tip for which the kid managed to stammer, "Th-th-thanks Miz Carter." "You don't need to call me Miss Carter, Jimmy," she gently reproved the teenager. "I've told you before, Helen is fine." The boy blushed again. "Uh, th-thanks, H-helen." Sam and Helen were halfway to the door of the store when she looked speculatively at Sam and asked if he'd like an ice-cream. "Mmm, great idea," he replied, still feeling hot and not looking forward to the trudge back. They bought the ice-creams, the girl laughing at him when he dithered over flavors. Jimmy piled hers particularly high and she gave the boy a most charming smile in thanks - probably the best thing that had happened to him all day. This time even the kid's ears went pink. When she turned back to Sam, she winked mischievously. They walked back licking their cones, Sam carrying the juice. The incident in the store had dissolved much of the constraint he felt and he kept sneaking glances at the girl. She was wearing a peasant-style skirt and white petticoat that she lifted and pulled aside from the low branches that barred their path, flashing nice, well-toned legs. The way she filled out her cotton top was pretty nice, too. Her long, silver filigree earrings tinkled with every step and the breeze was gently disturbing her hair. Sunlight glinted on coppery highlights, turning them red-gold. The girl - Helen - turned her head, catching his eye. He dodged her gaze, suddenly embarrassed. "You're about to lose your ice-cream," she said in an amused tone. He'd been so busy studying her he'd forgotten to eat his ice and quickly looked at it. Although it was melting fast, it still sat firmly atop the cone. "Gotcha twice." The mischief in her grin tugged an answering smile from himself. He really ought to find out who she was. Maybe then he'd be able to figure out why he was here. He quickly finished the ice-cream, then cleared his throat. "It isn't fair, you know." The grin dissolved into a puzzled frown. "You know so much about me but I don't know anything about you." "True enough. Okay, what do you want to know?" Helen looked directly at him, ready for his questions now. Sam was startled to discover that the eyes regarding him had great depth and clarity. They seemed more green than grey now and were sparkling in the sunshine. "Umm," he said, dragging his gaze from hers to give himself a chance to think clearly. "Oh, I know - where are you from? You have a faint accent I can't place and sometimes you use words that are a little unusual." Helen chuckled. A potted history of Helen Carter, that was easy enough. "I was born right here in good ol' Truro, Virginia. I'm a 'real, live niece of my Uncle Sam' - though I was born on June twenty- first, Midsummer Day, NOT the fourth of July. My father was American but I guess I get my accent from my mother. She was Welsh and always spoke with that wonderful lilt. She loved America but hated the way we say some words and insisted I speak them with a Welsh inflection - at least, when I was home. She was always 'Mam' when I spoke to her, but 'Mom' when I talked to my friends. "My Dad was in the Air Force - ground crew, not a pilot - a mechanic actually. He was sent to Sydney, Australia during World War Two and he met my Mom near the end of the war - my Welsh grandparents had emigrated there just before the war started. They fell in love and got married and came back here when the war ended. Dad was posted to Truro in 1956 and they liked it so much they bought a house - the one I took you to. I was born in '57 and grew up there. I don't know how Dad wangled it but he managed to stay at Truro Base until... So I've lived here all my life, apart from when I went to college in '75." Helen flashed Sam a deprecatory smile. "Very boring, I guess, to someone like you." "No. It sounds nice." Nice and ordinary - stable, uneventful. If only his life was like that. Helen could see he was looking at her - really looking at her - finally, she had his attention. All she had to do was keep it. Maybe a little sympathy would help. She pulled in a breath. "My Dad died in an accident at the base when I was seven. My Mom took it pretty hard. I think knowing she had me to look after was all that kept her going for a while. I look a lot like him, maybe that helped. She was always sad inside after the accident, even when she was laughing. I remember, she had a beautiful voice - a clear, high soprano - not like mine. When I was very small, when Dad was still alive, she sang around the house all the time." Helen gave a wistful smile. "I really missed hearing her after he'd gone. It was tough for her. She had to work real hard to support us, but somehow she always made special times for me." She was speaking of her mother in the past tense. Both her parents must have died. Sam knew how much it hurt to lose a parent. A vision of his Dad, the father he'd loved so much, flashed before him. A big bear of a man, lumbering around the farmhouse kitchen in faded overalls, wheezing and hacking, demanding real coffee - not that decaffeinated hog slop - searching for cigarettes while his time-travelling son tried to persuade him to eat a healthy, cholesterol-free breakfast. But what father was going to listen to medical advice from a son he thought was only sixteen? His Dad hadn't known the son giving him advice was much older and a fully qualified doctor of medicine, hadn't believed his son when he'd tried to explain he was from the future. And so his Dad had died of a coronary whilst his younger self had been away at MIT, leaving his mother and little sister to grieve alone. "She must have been a very special woman," Sam said gently. "She was. She was my best friend as well as my Mom." Despite her resolve to speak of her mother without emotion, Helen's voice shook. "She died three months ago. And - and I miss her so much." She clenched her fists until her nails bit into her palms, using the physical pain to bring the mental hurt back under control. *You mustn't let go. You can't let go.* "I'm sorry." Sam touched her arm in sympathy, distressed his question had caused her so much pain. He ought to know what to say to comfort her, it was part of the job, but the words refused to come. The girl flinched away as if she had been stung. He withdrew his hand, still bitter over his father's death and his inability to change it, hurt he couldn't console this girl, not even with a simple gesture. "It's okay," Helen tried to reassure him, once more in command of her emotions. But it was too late, a barrier had already sprung up between them. They finished their walk in uncomfortable silence. * * * * * Sam was very glad to get back to the cabin. They had only been gone about an hour, walking at a stroll, yet he felt exhausted, the juice he carried a lead weight, making his shoulders scream. He'd had to switch the bag from one arm to the other in an attempt to alleviate the strain. And he was dismayed by the girl's distress, upset at her reaction to his clumsy attempt at comfort. His head throbbed, but he was determined not to show her how tired he was. When she went into the kitchen to prepare dinner he offered to help. Helen set him to work preparing salad, noting how pale and strained his face had become, but not wanting to reject him again. She cooked steaks quickly, changing from the more elaborate and time consuming menu she'd originally had in mind, serving them simply with the salad, the Idaho potatoes she'd put in the oven before their walk, and the remainder of the bread she'd baked earlier. She also uncorked a bottle of red wine and in a very short time they were sitting down to their meal. When they had nearly finished, Helen could see Sam was beginning to feel the effects of the wine. She had been very careful of her own wine consumption and had only sipped her way through about half a glass. She set the glass down on the table. "Sam, tell me about Al Calavicci. Who exactly is he? I don't really know much about him other than his name." Sam had stiffened as she used his name for the first time that day, but her query about Al caught him off guard and before he could think of a good reason not to answer, he replied, "Well, he's my Observer, my link with Ziggy and my own time." Helen put her elbows on the table, rested her chin on her linked fingers and nodded encouragingly. "He and Ziggy help me figure out what to fix in a person's life so I can Leap - or at least, sometimes they do. Sometimes they get it all wrong and I have to work it out for myself." "But that only tells me what he DOES. What's he like as a person?" Sam took another sip of wine to give himself time to think. How would you describe Al? And where had he got to? What was going on at the Project? The girl was looking at him expectantly. He pulled himself together. *Concentrate, describe Al.* He took a deep breath. "He's older than me and not so tall. Dark hair - though he's going grey at the temples - and brown eyes, and he always dresses real sharp." He made a circle with his forefinger and thumb. "I mean REALLY snazzy. Oh, and he smokes. Cigars, big fat ones. And he's got a one-track mind. Sex. He never stops thinking about sex and he just adores women - all of them. He's got a thing going with Tina, she's our communications expert at the Project - or at least, he USED to have a thing going with Tina. I keep forgetting, he doesn't anymore. It's a little, er, complicated - but he still lusts after every woman who comes into view. Whenever there are women around in the Leaps, he can't keep his eyes off them." Helen laughed. "The Australians have a wonderful word for that. 'Perving'. It doesn't mean a person is perverted, as in deviant, simply that they like looking at the opposite sex. Like window shopping rather than actually buying." "'Perving'," repeated Sam, tasting the word as though it were a new food. "Yes, that sums up Al's behavior perfectly. Mind you, he does - did - as much buying as he could, too, when he had the chance, but he can only window shop when he's in the Imaging Chamber because he can't touch, only see - perv. He didn't tolerate Tina buying or perving very well though. He still gets jealous about her even though he has no right to now. In fact, when he was here - at the library I mean - he was more interested in telling me about some new guy at the Project he thinks Tina's got the hots for than trying to help me find out what it is I'm here to fix." Helen opened her mouth to reiterate that he was simply on a vacation to get him fit and well enough to do his job again, but changed her mind, shutting her mouth on her comment. He seemed to have accepted that she knew who he was and where he came from. He was even trusting her enough to talk about the Project and Al. Though, he obviously still didn't believe what she had told him about his reason for being with her. At least it was a start. Sam was still talking, the alcohol loosening his tongue. "That's what he's like on the outside, but there's a lot more to him than that. He believed in my time travel theories when everyone else thought I was nuts and used his influence to help get the funding we needed for the Project. He's very shrewd and - and worldly. He knows lots of things I don't. He's a navy man, a highly decorated one, an admiral." Now it was Helen's turn to savor words, though she did it silently. Admiral Albert Calavicci. It had a nice ring to it, though she wasn't sure if she thought much of his character. Sam continued, "He's been a pilot and an astronaut, amongst other things. He was shot down and captured by the VC during the war." He stared at his glass, the dregs of wine looking like blood. So much blood, spilt for nothing. "They kept him in a cage he couldn't even stand up in. "He - I had a very special Leap once where I found myself in 'Nam in Tom's - he's my brother - in his SEAL squad. Al helped me save Tom's life when I could have been saving him from that hell-hole. He didn't get repatriated for five years, and by then Beth, his wife, had given up on him coming back and married someone else. Yet he never hesitated in his decision to help me save my brother rather than himself. That's the kind of guy he is. He never even told me I could have helped him, I only found out by accident. Al doesn't remember that, though - the bit about Beth not waiting, I mean. I fixed it, you see, so that Beth would wait. He's still married to her." "Al's married?" "Yes." It had been worth giving up the chance to go home for a while so he could change Al's life, give Al his true love as Al had given him his brother. *Had it really been worth it?* asked a small voice from the center of the gnawing ache. "Yes. I'm GLAD I fixed it," he answered fiercely, shoving the doubt away. "He deserves to be happy. He's saved my life a dozen times over since the whole Leaping business started and he's the best, truest friend anyone could ever have. He helps keep me sane in this mad existence I'm stuck in. I couldn't do the Leaps without his help and support." Where was Al? He needed him. He missed him. DAMN ZIGGY! Helen hardly heard what Sam was saying, too concerned with the effect words and memories were producing on him. His shoulders were visibly shrinking, hunching over his chest, protecting himself. His eyes had clouded over, the smudges beneath seeming darker than ever. She reached out her hand, but stopped just before she made contact with his arm. "You look all in, Sam. I think that walk was a bit much for you. Why don't you go to bed?" "Yeah, I think I will," he replied in a dull voice, not even noticing her movement. All the old hopelessness and confusion had come crowding back and he felt nearly as bad as he had in the library. If only he could shut it all out, just for a little while. Maybe if he slept he would. He twisted his mouth apologetically, not really looking at the girl, avoiding her eyes. Then he stood rather unsteadily and went into the bedroom, shutting the door behind him. * * * * * For the second time in forty-eight hours, Helen looked down at Sam as he lay asleep on the bed. She felt guilty watching him without his knowledge, he looked so vulnerable and exposed, but she wanted to imprint his image on her mind so she would never forget how he looked. He was younger than she had imagined - the word 'scientist' had conjured up images of a madman from some old B-movie or a white-haired Albert Einstein. Physically he still looked in pretty good shape. Tall. Nice body. Wide shoulders tapering to a lean waist and hips. Under the bedcovers she knew there was a flat belly and long, muscular thighs, shown to advantage earlier by the tight, flared jeans. A body any football jock would be happy to possess. However, unlike the jocks she'd met at school, this guy possessed a brain as well. He was curled up tightly in the fetal position, drawn in on himself, but she could just see a dusting of hair on his chest. His big hands with their long, sensitive fingers were twitching. If only he would touch her again. She cursed silently. Why had she jumped away from him on the walk back? She knew he'd thought she didn't want him to touch her, not even to express sympathy. She couldn't exactly explain that the mere touch of his hand made her blood sing and her heart leap. She crossed her arms over her ribs, holding in the need that ached inside, and tore her eyes away. Leaving the door open so the lamp by the couch cast faint light upon the outline of the sleeping figure, she went impatiently back into the living room. She prowled around, then yanked a cushion off the couch and threw it across the room. Hell and Damnation! She'd had one chance today when Sam had really looked at her, seen her as a person, and she'd blown it. She went over and over the scene on their walk, how she should have played it, instead of losing control in that snivelling way. How could she get to know this man if she kept messing up like that? AND if he never stayed awake for more than a couple of hours at a time? All he did was sleep and eat. She was getting sick of playing nursemaid and cook. *I don't know how long we have together and he spends most of the time in bed - on his own!* She jammed her fists on her hips and glared heavenward. "This better not be Your idea of a joke!" After a few more impatient turns around the room, she threw herself down on the couch, swung her feet up onto the cushions and snatched a book from the pile on the side table. She opened it and tried to compose her mind sufficiently to read. When she realised she'd read three pages without taking in the meaning, she inhaled deeply and started again, forcing herself to concentrate more. As the sentences finally made sense, she flipped the book over and read the title. 'Selected Love Poetry by John Donne'. *Oh for Pete's sake! This won't help!* With a rueful expression, she snapped the book shut and dumped it back on the table. For a moment she sat on the couch with folded arms. Then, with one fluid movement, she swung her legs around and slid to the floor. Settling herself with the ease of long practice into a full lotus, she placed her hands lightly on her knees, thumb and middle fingers together, took a long, slow breath and began to chant: "Om Mani Padme Hum." Eventually, the age-old mantra worked its magic and she became relaxed enough to settle back on the couch and rest.