a Quantum Leap back story
by Barbara E. Walton
He'd always called her Little-Bit.
She paused and looked up, her brush halted just below her
right ear, dark ropes of hair falling across its handle.
Of all the things to remember! She hadn't thought about it
in years. That had been Daddy's pet name for her.
"And how's my Little-Bit this month?" he would ask, swinging
her up into the crook of his arm (a feat which seemed to get harder
every month, as her traitor legs grew and grew; they would not
become an asset for many years).
"It's Elizabeth, Daddy!" she would squeal, not minding the
name at all.
"Isn't that just what I said, Little-Bit?"
That had been 1948. She was eight years old, and too tall
for her age. He was stationed in D.C. that year, and would drive
home to Pittsburgh for a week every month to see Beth and her
brother Matthew, and Mommy. Beth had adored him, simply and
completely. It was two years before they sent him to Korea.
She sighed, and pulled her hair into a wide curl around her
When Daddy was shipped overseas, Mom had taken Beth and Matt
to live with Daddy's sister, Aunt Lorilyn, in a little town called
Sylvester, Georgia, about 100 miles north of Augusta, on the border
of South Carolina. Aunt Lorilyn had been a Southern biddy, old
before her time, with prejudices that would've seemed extreme a
century before. She always called Beth "Lizzie," and the children
at school -- who ostracized her anyway, for her height, her
intelligence, her accent, and her Catholicism -- had picked it up,
and taken to chanting Lizzie Borden took an ax... at her
until she cried, even though her last name was Grady.
Beth had no love for the South.
"Do you really think it's different someplace else?" Al had
asked her on the day they met.
"It was different in Pittsburgh."
"You were little there." He sat down on the porch railing
of the church where the rally had been held. "I've been all over
the place, honey. It's all the same. I keep hoping that the next
town will be different."
"And it never is?"
He smiled. "Well, maybe this time it was."
Beth started to ask why, then blushed when she saw his
frank, appraising gaze. They'd been talking for nearly eight
hours, and Beth hadn't really stopped to think about the pleasant,
comfortable tension that had been building between them. She
looked at her watch. "I have to get back to school," she said, and
amplified, "My dorm mother is very strict. I'll get demerits."
Al laughed at the sky, and Beth laughed at herself. He
was a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy, spending the
first weekend furlough of his final year at a civil rights rally
which was no doubt considered highly subversive, and she was
worried about a couple of demerits for breaking the curfew on her
nursing school morals code.
She mentioned this to him, and he shrugged indifferently.
It was in that moment that two utterly insane thoughts first
occurred to her. The first was that Al honestly didn't care about
being caught here; he felt he was in the right, and was prepared
to accept any consequences of his actions, no matter how much they
hurt him. The second was that, in the space of less than a day,
she had fallen in love with him.
She didn't know.
"There isn't always a reason, Little-Bit," Daddy said after
his first tour in Korea. They were sitting on the swing in Aunt
Lorilyn's gazebo, and Beth was eleven. "You always ask me 'Why,
Daddy?' You've been doing it since you were three. 'Why do pine
trees have needles, Daddy?' 'Why don't they make newpapers with
purple ink, Daddy?'"
"Daddy!" She swatted him, remembering her "Why isn't
everything purple?" phase with warm adolescent embarrassment.
"'Why' is a good word, Little-Bit, and I hope you never stop
using it, but there's not always an answer for it."
Beth no longer remembered what had started the conversation;
he'd been right, there were a million "why"s to choose from. She
had always had an inquisitive mind -- sometimes a downright
inquisitorial one (she'd worked on a school paper in high school,
and her classmates had taken to calling her Nellie Bly) -- and
it was as much a hindrance as an asset. Al had gotten fed up with
her "third degrees" after he'd been away several times,
but she'd never quite been able to stifle them. It wasn't
suspicion -- well, not entirely -- just a desire to know what he
was like when she wasn't with him.
(Well, you could've always asked Ruthie or one of his
other little friends... )
Beth closed her eyes and counted to ten, surprised that
the anger still seemed so fresh. She always knew what Al did on
his liberties, and she put up with it as well as she could. It was
only serious once, and they'd worked through it after Ruthie left.
Beth had always figured he would outgrow the others.
She stood up, and opened her closet door. The dress was
hanging in its carefully sealed bag, waiting for her, and she
lifted it carefully.
He'd shown up the first week in December of 1960, claiming
that he was "just stopping by" on a cross-country trup he'd planned
for the long holiday. He and Beth had been in touch since fall;
he'd sent her a record called "Georgia on My Mind," and Beth had
listened to it over and over. It hadn't taken much to convince him
to stay with the family for Christmas, and Beth didn't need to
interrogate him to know that this had been his unspoken wish all
along. He hadn't spent Christmas with his own family since he was
five, and the family he'd stayed with on his other school breaks
was Jewish (at the time, Beth only had a vague understanding that
it had something to do with the daughter; she often wished she'd
never pushed for any more details). It was his first Christmas in
a home with a tree and a family in nearly fifteen years, and it was
an almost magical thing. He had taken Beth for long, rambling
walks on the country roads, looking up at the sky and the trees.
God, how he had loved Georgia! He'd loved it enough to make Beth
love it as well There was something in the soft night sky that
would always bring him to her mind; the clouds would always be his
eyes, the breeze, his hands on her skin.
The holiday was nearly perfect to Beth until he'd gone
upstairs to clean up (and read a card Beth had given him
privately), and Matt had rolled his eyes and said, "Nice to have
Daddy home for the holidays, huh, Betsy?"
Beth felt herself go cold, suddenly more deeply furious than
she had ever been. "Don't ever try to put me in the center ring
of one of those Freudian circuses your professors like to talk
"If the big top fits... "
She started to walk away, but Matt touched her arm gently,
and pulled out a chair for her. "Look, Betsy," he said, "I'm your
big brother, and I worry about you. This guy seems nice, but do
you really know anything about him?"
"It's not like I'm planning on marrying him," Beth said. Al
hadn't asked, and she was afraid of jinxing the possibility.
"Oh, yeah? Is that why all the sudden you're looking at
furniture catalogs and getting mail from the Navy nurse corps?"
"Are you spying on me?"
"No. I just pick up the mail. You're not fooling around
here, and I don't think he is, either. I just want to make sure
you're doing this for the right reasons."
"Since when are my reasons yours to judge?" she'd asked, and
when she and Al had married in June, Matt had kept his peace, and
even offered a kind toast. He'd been killed eight months later
in an auto accident outside D.C.; Al had been on sea duty, and
didn't get word until it was too late for the funeral. Beth had
gone alone, and returned to an empty house.
She sat down on her cheap couch, buried her face in a
throw pillow, and wept. Matt was right, had always been right.
She'd made sure that her adult life would never deviate too far
from her childhood -- long periods of lonely waiting, putting up
with wtaber was thrown at her, anticipating those short visits
during which she could be perfectly happy and completely alive.
Sometimes she felt like they balanced out, but now, here, with
nothing but the sound of her own tears to keep her company, it
seemed like the world was a deep, lonely sea, and she was drowning
Waiting. Dear God, waiting was Hell.
They'd gotten a letter from Daddy in the fall of 1951,
and he'd enclosed private letters to Beth and Matt as well. "Dear
Little-Bit," hers had begun, "I guess your Mom told you that my
luck changed a little. But the doctors here have got me fixed up
pretty good, and the Army says they're going to let me come home
to you right away! What do you think of that?" The letter had
come three days after the telegram saying that the hospital unit
he'd been recovering in had been bombed, and he was among the
Mom had cried, and Matt had said nothing, but Beth had
been lighthearted at the letter. She understood intllectually that
he'd sent it before the telegram, but it still seemed like he was
reaching out to her, and she took to waiting by the phone or
standing on the front porch (remembering, in some dazed way, the
scene from Gone With the Wind where Miss Mellie spied her
husband coming up the road to Tara). He had never appeared on a
road or on the other end of a telephone line, and Matt and Mom had
both tried to convince her to prepare herself for the inevitable,
but when the telegram came, Beth had been devastated. For ten
months, she'd refused to believe that he might be dead; now it was
confirmed. Daddy and thirteen other patients had been found in a
shallow grave north of the hospital site.
Beth wiped her face, and pulled the dress over her head.
It only came to a spot below her knees, and it wasn't white, as the
first one had been.
A white wedding, in June...
She choked back a scream, and pulled up the zipper on the new
dress. She'd woven a thin black ribbon through the lace at the
(You can't do this.)
She shut her eyes and shut out the voice; it was just the
frantic protest of a child whose Daddy had once called her
"Little-Bit." That little girl was gone, as surely as Daddy was,
and as surely as Al was. It was time to let go of all of them.
In the next room, the organ began to play.
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Author's note: I am not crazy about the ending -- it seems a bit
abrupt to me -- but I had to tie it off somehow. This story, of
course, takes place before "Mirror Image."
Return to Barbara Walton's Quantum Leap menu.
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