"Off the Beaten Path" pt. V

May, 1988
Raleigh, NC

  "I don't believe this, I just don't _believe_ this!!" Sam paced back
and forth in helpless frustration and anger. "This can't be happening.
This must be the leap from _hell_!"
  "Calm down, Sam, we'll work this all out okay," Al said with as even a
tone as he could muster. He was upset, too, but, for Sam's sake, he put a
lid on his own anger and tried to focus on the problem at hand.
  "But it was just so _stupid_! I can't believe I did something so
dumb..." Sam dropped into a chair and buried his face in his hands.
  "It's just a setback..."
  "A setback?!"
  "Yes, a setback. It's not over yet." Al knelt by his side and looked up
at his friend. "Sam, you haven't slept in a while. You still have another
day and a half. Why don't you check into a motel and then you can rent a
car and drive the other hour to Nant and find Evelyn."
  "Don't you get it, Al, I could be there now! If I hadn't been so, so
  Al's face reflected his anger at Sam's self-pity. "Sam, listen to me."
He waited until Sam took his face out of his hands before continuing.
"This isn't going to do Evelyn any good. Daniel, either. You made a
mistake, fine. It's not the end of the world. No-one's dead yet, and you
can fix everything still. If you keep this up, your blood pressure is
going to pop something."
  "Al, I left the keys on the dashboard. I mean, come on!" Sam waved a
hand in the air. "I'm supposed to go back and fix problems, not cause
  "Oh, come off it," Al snapped. "The sooner you pull yourself out of
this, the sooner you can get this leap moving forward again."
  "Well, couldn't Ziggy have seen fit to notify me about this in the
first place?" He narrowed his gaze. "She's been really screwy this leap -
is something wrong at the project?"
  "The project's fine," Al soothed. "Ziggy...she's just having a series
of unforeseeable events and she's having difficulty compensating."
  Sam sighed. "You're not making any sense, Al."
  He smacked the handlink. "Yeah, well, neither is she. Must be why we
work so-" *whack* "-well together."
  "Mr. Geller?" the police officer asked, coming up to where Sam sat.
  "Yes," Sam confirmed. He stood up, casting a glace at Al, who rose to
his feet again.
  "We have your name and number. The instant we hear anything, we'll give
you a call. For now, there's nothing more we can do."
  Sam took a deep breath and let it out slowly, muting the angry voice
within himself. Al was right - he needed to get a better handle on his
emotions. "Thank you for all your help. I'll need a rental car and maybe
a motel for a few hours; can you give me someone to call?" Al nodded
  "Yes, sir. Right this way."
  Al followed him to a desk and watched him flip through the phone book.
The officer left him to his task and Sam looked at Al. "You sure I'll
have enough time to get to her?"
  "Sure I'm sure," Al replied, glancing at the 'link. "Just take it easy;
we won't let anything happen to her, okay?"
  Sam leaned against the desk, flipping pages absently with one finger.
"Okay." He stopped on one page and lifted the phone, smiling at Al.
  "Good. Then I'll leave you to it, Sam."
  Sam put his finger on the phone, cutting off the connection. "You're
leaving so soon?"
  Al raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Well, I figured if you were gonna
get some sleep, I would, too."
  "Well...I was hoping to talk to you."
  "Oh? What about?"
  Sam floundered around for a few moments, and then shrugged. "You just
seemed like something was bugging you and I thought..." At Al's
expression, he frowned. "What?"
  "I can't even _talk_ to Beth without her asking me the same thing.
Honestly, it had me really worried, Sam. I mean, she does tend to
overreact from time to time about little things, but she's generally
pretty levelheaded about important stuff. And the way she kept asking
me...well... Let me assure you, Sam, once and for all, that there is
nothing wrong."
  "Really?" He looked doubtful.
  Al threw up his hands. "I surrender!" he cried, looking up. He looked
back at Sam. "Really," he assured him firmly. "What, do you want it in
  Sam chuckled. "Couldn't hurt," he replied, dialing the number. Al waved
good-bye as he started speaking to the motel he had called.

June, 2000
Stallions Gate, NM

  Beth was working at the desk in the room when Al stumbled in. "Sam's
going to sleep," he said. "Got his car stolen."
  "You're kidding!" she exclaimed, turning to face him as he sat down on
the bed.
  Al, who was prying off his shoes, shook his head. "Nope. He was pretty
steamed. I convinced him to get a rental car and crash at a motel for a
  "I thought you said he was only a few hours from Nant?"
  "More like four, but he was up all night fixing the car that just got
stolen. And he's really worked up, so I figured a little break would be
  "For both of you," she agreed.
  He snorted. "Don't you see me getting ready for a nap here?"
  "Yes." She started to turn back to her work.
  "Join me?" he asked, grinning.
  "Not this time, Mister."
  Ziggy's voice cut off their conversation. "Admiral, I am just notifying
you that we have a lock on Evelyn Geller."
  Al raised his eyebrows. "Only just now?"
  She sniffed. "Was it necessary before now?"
  Beth rolled her eyes and Al sighed. "Thank you, Ziggy," he muttered,
pulling the covers over himself. "Will you wake me in about, oh, 3 hours,
  "I'll wake you when Ziggy says Sam's awake," she bargained.
  He yawned and then shrugged. "I can never win."
  "Right. Sleep." Beth resumed her work on the computer, no doubt
entering new boatloads of data from her research.
  Al turned so his back was to her and closed his eyes, waiting for the
sleep his body so craved to envelop him.

  Beth had long since given up on her work. The numbers weren't working;
the figures were all wrong. It made sense that the entire process had
been botched, but she was determined to recall exactly what had gone awry
before discarding the results. She'd done this experiment several times,
and it had always come out as expected, but now the accuracy was all off
and none of the tests were coming out correctly.
  For the past five years, now, Beth had been performing experiments to
try and determine the effects leaping had on the cellular level,
searching for any additional clues to donate to the further development
of a retrieval program. For the past five years, she had been thoroughly
  Now, she lay on her back on top of the covers next to Al, who was still
sound asleep. The lights were all off in the room and it was silent - the
perfect atmosphere in which to think. 
  That is, if Al would keep still. She was beginning to think the other
room would be a better place to go over her methods again when he started
coughing violently, startling her out of her thoughts. He stood up, not
seeming to notice her presence at all in the darkness, and stumbled to
the bathroom, turning on the light and half shutting the door.
  Beth sat up, swinging around so her feet were on the floor. She
hesitated until the sounds of someone becoming very sick reached her
ears, and then she stood up and crossed the room. She pushed the door
open slightly, just in time to see Al, seated on the floor, lean back
against the wall with a dull thud. She entered without comment and,
making a face, flushed the toilet. Then she pulled out a washcloth and
drenched it in cool water, filling a small paper cup directly afterwards.
  He looked up at her for the first time as she knelt down beside him,
pressed the cloth to his face, and offered him the cup. "When are you
going to learn to listen to me?" she asked finally, breaking the silence.
"When I tell you there's something wrong..."
  He attempted a smile, but it failed him and she lowered her hand with
the cloth. 
  "How do you feel?" she asked quietly. She put her other hand on his
shoulder, drawing back reflexively when it met his sweat- soaked shirt.
"You're burning up!" she exclaimed. "Let me take your temperature."
  "I'm not sick," he insisted weakly.
  "The hell you're not," she countered. She wasn't normally given to such
fits of any such language, but his appearance frightened her more than
she was willing to admit. Still muttering under her breath, she took out
her medical kit and found a thermometer. "Keep still," she instructed,
placing the instrument in his ear. She frowned at the readout.
  "Well?" he asked.
  "No fever," she said slowly, puzzled. She glanced back at him and laid
the back of her hand against his forehead. In spite of the effects of the
wash cloth, he was still very warm to the touch.
  "I'm not sick," he repeated, as if trying to convince himself. His
voice was stronger now, but he was still pale and shaking.
  "Al, people who aren't sick don't normally look like you do. You just
don't have a fever, that's all." She hooked one arm under his and helped
pull him to his feet. "Come lie down." She led him back to the room,
pausing when he hesitated in the doorway. "What?" she prompted.
  "I can't see - can you turn on a light?"
  She watched him steadily. "What aren't you telling me?"
  "Could you just...turn on the light? _Please_?"
  She advanced into the room and clicked on the light by their bedside.
He sagged against the door frame, wiping a hand repeatedly over his face.
  She sat slowly down onto the edge of the bed, studying him intently.
"Come here," she beckoned, patting the bed beside her. He responded
instantly to her, easing himself onto the bed. She offered him the
washcloth she still held and he wiped his face and arms, his breathing
slowly returning to a normal pattern.
  She took his face in her hands and tried to look into his eyes, but he
dropped his gaze, staring at his hands. 
  "Al?" she asked, "what is it?"
  He took another deep breath. "Nightmare," he said tightly.
  "About Sam," Beth said. It wasn't a question.
  Al glanced up in surprise. "How did you know I..?"
  "I know," she said simply. Al was more transparent than he liked to
  He swallowed harshly. "Well, it wasn't about Sam," he said, so quietly
that she had to strain to hear him.
  A deathly pause asserted itself and then Beth managed to choke out,
"You mean it was..." She stopped, letting the meaning be understood
without the words.
  He nodded, his eyes pained.
  "But, Al, you haven't had one of those dreams in...years. It's been
over a decade, right?"
  "Something like that, yeah."
  *This didn't happen now by chance, by accident,* she thought
frantically. *Something must have triggered this. Whatever it was, it's
what's been off with Al lately, I'm sure of it.* She was about to prod
for more answers when she noticed him shaking, the shirt he wore still
drenched. Silently, she got up and retrieved another shirt for him. She
handed it to him and watched him change without comment, then eased back
down beside him. He sat rigidly, wrapping his arms around himself as if
he was still cold, or nauseous. Or scared.
  Beth slid an inch closer to her husband, pulling him to her and
pressing his head against her shoulder, the same way she used to do when
one of their daughters was upset or distraught. She ran her fingers
through his damp hair and whispered to him and he almost seemed to melt
into her grasp. There had been a time when incidents like this would wake
both of them up from a sound sleep several times a night, when the dreams
would be so bad, Al would often be screaming in his sleep. But that was a
long time ago. Flashbacks and dreams had died within a year or two of his
return from Vietnam, slowly diminishing in intensity and frequency. From
that point on, it would happen every so often, and then, eventually, not
at all. Then, at one point, they came back, but they defeated those
demons a second time.
  The fact that they were back again disturbed her. Even his dreams about
Sam didn't get this bad and she certainly didn't expect such a violent
reaction, not even from this. The trembling finally eased and he pulled
  "I'm sorry," he mumbled. 
  She rubbed his back gently. "Why? It's certainly not your fault."
  "You'd think I'd be used to it."
  "Yeah, well, it's been a while." She smiled at him when he looked up.
  He took her hand in his and clenched it tightly. "I just don't
understand...I don't know what could have set it off."
  She gazed sorrowfully at him. "I wish I knew, Al. Why don't you just
try to relax and-"
  "I'm not going back to sleep," he said quickly.
  The intensity of the words cut deep and she embraced him again. "I
understand. It's okay, Al."
  "I'll be fine...just...give me a minute," he murmured.
  "I know, honey, take your time."
  His breathing sounded ragged. "I don't want to do this all again."
  What could she say? He held her hand more firmly and she felt the air
pushed out of her lungs. It had been so long since she had to...deal with
seeing him like this. She shut her eyes.
  "You know," he said softly, "you can't imagine how much worse this was
when you weren't here."
  She didn't reply. She didn't want to think about that other timeline
anymore. "Maybe you should talk with Verbena."
  He pulled completely free and wiped a hand across his face. "I don't
think so."
  She drew back a notch, giving him his space. He'd told her once that
when he had a dream like this, it didn't end with waking up. It stuck
with him - the feelings and the memories. It made him feel as if the
walls were closing in. "It could help," she persisted.
  "I'm not so sure." He inhaled deeply and found a smile from the depths
to cast at her. "I'm gonna go take a shower and then get a little work
  She kissed his cheek. "That sounds like a good idea. Just take it easy,
  He still looked out of synch, but the color was flowing back into his
cheeks and his eyes were losing some of their distant look. "I'll try,"
he vowed.
  She stood up, squeezing his shoulder once before exiting the room,
leaving him to his peace.

Sorry these are so slow in coming. I've been swamped. As always, any
comments/ideas are more than welcome. Thanks!