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December 22, 1971

 

Dad came home from town late this evening – late enough that Katey and I between us had pretty well done all the chores, were just finishing up in the cowsheds. I happened to be passing by as he pulled in the truck, so I grabbed the biggest box of groceries out of the back and humped it inside for him. He didn't exactly thank me, but then, he hates to be reminded that he's getting old.

"You were a long time," mom said mildly, glancing up from rolling out piecrust. "I was starting to wonder if you hadn't run off with Bennings' check-out girl."

Dad, who (as far as I know) would never dream of any such thing, gave a snort of laughter, reached for a cigarette. "Thought about it," he said, through a haze of blue smoke. "Damnedest thing happened in town, Thelma. You remember Will Walters?"

Mom and I both had to think. "Sure," mom said, finally. "He died – oh, a while back. Mary Walters served on the PTA board with me one year. What about him?"

Dad poured himself coffee, leaned up against the counter comfortably, ready to tell his story. "His boys held up the bank today," he informed us, casual as a remark on the price of feed. Mom dropped the pastry cutter.

"They did what?!"

He bent down and retrieved the cutter for her, his eyes crinkling in amusement at her reaction – mine, too, I'd been just as startled. Elk Ridge is a minor vandalism, petty larceny, driving under the influence kind of town – not the sort of place you'd ever associate with full-scale criminal activity. "Held up the bank. Yup. News was all over town. But that's not all. They held up the bank – but the word is, it's Gus Vernon who's going to be facing charges."

"The bank president?" Mom gave up on the pastry altogether, stood with her arms folded. "John Beckett, what sort of a story is this?"

He threw up his hands. "It's true! It seems Willy – " He looked at me. "You used to know Willy Walters, didn't you, Tom?"

Again, I had to cast my mind back. Yes, I did. Just about, anyway. He'd been a few years behind me in high school, a few years ahead of Sam – a nondescript kind of guy. All I really remembered was that he'd been Elk Ridge's top honours student for a short time. Once Sam came along, of course, no-one else stood a chance ... "Yeah, I remember him," I said.

"Well," dad went on, "Willy got the idea that Vernon's way of doing business wasn't strictly on the level – " A furrow appeared between his eyebrows. "Tell you the truth, I was kind of getting the same feeling myself ..."

Me too. Dad had taken me into his confidence soon after I shipped home. The farm wasn't doing too well, and we were on the verge of sliding heavily into debt – so heavily that I doubted we could ever climb back. I hadn't been there when dad had met with Vernon, but, going by the results, the advice he'd got from the man must've been pretty lousy.

"... so, anyhow, he snuck out the back way while everyone was watching some kind of diversion in the front, cut around to Vernon's house – and be damned if he didn't find the papers to prove it." He stubbed out his cigarette, threw it in the trash. "All those places that've been repossessed over the last few years? Seems there was a company real interested in acquiring that land to build a new shopping mall – and it seems Vernon had what you'd call a vested interest."

"Insider trading," I said. Mom frowned.

"Nothing about Gus Vernon would surprise me – but how did Willy know?"

Dad shrugged. "That's what no-one can figure, not even Willy, it seems. Last I saw of him, he was acting kind of stunned – staring around like he didn't know where in the world he was, or how on earth he'd gotten there." He laughed, broke off to cough. "You know what that boy did? He came running straight up to me in the street, wished me a merry Christmas, and threw his arms right around my neck – like he thought I was his daddy, or something. Said it was a message from his mother." And, at my own mother's raised eyebrows, he held up his hands in defence. "Hey, now, Thelma, I don't even know Mary Walters, not more'n to say hello to."

She sniffed, good-naturedly. "So you say!" And, as my dad circled the table, coming purposefully toward her, she let out a shriek. "John Samuel Beckett, if you spoil my pastry – !"

I left them to it, wandered outside onto the porch. It was getting dark out there, and a chilly wind was rising, tossing the bare branches of the elm trees in the meadows, swirling the fallen leaves in endless, haphazard circles that reflected my state of mind. My thoughts were in a whirl. Something dad had said ... someone acting erratically, out of character, coming out of it confused, dazed ... as if there were a gap in their memory ...

It set off alarm bells in my mind. I'd witnessed such a reaction myself: not just once, but twice. Once in a member of my SEALS unit; and once ...

I wheeled about sharply, went back indoors, stuck my head around the living room door. Katey was there, curled up on the couch, reading a teen magazine; no-one else.

"Katey," I asked her, "have you seen Sam? Recently," I added quickly; she was going through an irritating adolescent-humour stage.

She wrinkled her nose disdainfully. She and our brother had had one of their all too frequent fallings-out almost the instant he arrived back from Cambridge – I didn't know what about this time, I could never keep track of those two – and she hadn't forgiven him yet. "He's in the back parlour."

The back parlour had been Grandma Nettie's living room, and it was where the piano was. Nobody else besides Sam used it much; it was kept pretty much as it had been when grandma was still alive, and the furniture and the draperies retained a fusty, old-lady air about them. But Sam had always been grandma's favourite – she was the one who'd insisted he should have piano lessons, had even threatened to pay for them when dad had wavered – and, after she was gone, her sanctuary had become his.

And, make no mistake, Sam needed a sanctuary. It was sad, but it was true. He's always been kind of a cuckoo in our cosy little nest. Or no, not really a cuckoo, nothing so mundane. More like a peacock, or a phoenix maybe – something flamboyant and incredible, raised by a family of bemused sparrows. The love is there, don't get me wrong, it's there in both directions, but as he gets older, so he seems able to connect less and less with the rest of us. He finds it hard to express himself in terms simple enough for us to understand; we find it hard – make that well-nigh impossible – to function at his level. So we all end up getting frustrated. We deal with that in our own ways – mom and dad by treating him no differently than they would any ordinary kid of his age, Katey by squabbling with him, me, I'm sorry to say, by constantly teasing him; and Sam dealt with it by crawling into his shell and not coming out until we went away and let him be. He never said as much in so many words, but I knew that there were times when he just had to get away, had to be by himself; times when he was the only person he could stand to be around.

I understood Katey's expression when I opened the parlour door. Sam was playing Bach: the English Suites. Now, if music and mathematics are the same thing – which I don't see at all, but that's what Sam always claims – then, in my opinion, the English and French Suites are pretty much on a level with Napier's logarithms, and about as enjoyable. But Sam seems to find them soothing. He turned his head toward the door as I came in, but didn't say anything, or leave off playing – a sure sign he was in one of his moods. Katey must have really been getting to him badly.

"I want to talk to you," I said. It came out kind of brusquely, more so than I had intended. I'd become accustomed to command over in 'Nam, was having to break myself of the tendency to talk to my family as I would have talked to the guys in my unit. Mom in particular hadn't appreciated it at all.

Sam didn't respond too well either. He would've made a lousy soldier – doesn't have the temperament for it. He's way too headstrong – way too smart. He wouldn't last ten minutes in the killing fields. Thank god, he'll never have to find that out the hard way. No government would ever take the risk of wasting a genius like his in open combat. Or so I hoped. I hoped that I had paid all of our family's dues in that respect.

He put his head on one side, listening, but still carried on with the music. I drew a deep breath, contained my own temper. "Could you at least play something I like?"

Without breaking pace, he slid into Clair de Lune. You have to understand the way Sam's mind works to know when you're being insulted. I happen to be very well aware that he considers Debussy treacly and sentimental. I let it slide. "Can we compromise, Sam? How about some Chopin?"

He hunched a shoulder, played a couple of bars of Rhapsody in Blue, ran his fingers down the keys and finally shut up, looking up at me expectantly. I came around to stand by the keyboard.

"Sam," I began, "do you remember the Walters brothers?"

"Should I?" he countered, without a flicker of interest.

"I thought you remembered everything," I said dryly.

He heaved an exaggerated sigh. "Yeah," he said deprecatingly, "I do. Every person I've met, every book I've read, everything I've ever said or thought or done. Ask me anything and I'll amaze you." He struck a dramatic chord. "Another astounding Sam Beckett party trick! Collect 'em all."

God, he really was in a foul temper. I made a mental note to have a few quiet words with Katey, and soon. In the meantime –

"Sam," I said, warningly. He held up his hands as though to fend me off.

"Okay, okay! The Walters brothers. Well, there's a big one, Neil, a middle one, Willy, and a little one ... John, I think? Yeah, John. The big one's kind of dumb, the middle one's kind of smart, the little one ... I don't know much about him. Sorry if that disappoints you." He glanced at me sidelong, his curiosity obviously piqued in spite of himself. "Why are you asking?"

I didn't answer him, not directly. "How's MIT?" I asked instead.

He gave another shrug. "It's good. Pretty good, I guess. There's this one professor, Professor LoNigro, he's doing a lot of really interesting work – doing some lateral thinking on quantum mechanics, coming up with a whole bunch of different questions – "

"You mean, answers," I said, without thinking. I should know better than to try to correct Sam. He gave me one of those disgusted 'why-do-I-even-bother?' looks of his.

"No, questions. You have to know the right questions before you can start coming up with the answers." He seemed to think about this for a moment. "Except when you have an answer and you have to find out what the question was in the first place ..."

"So, you're working with him?"

"Him, yeah. Lots of others. I like Sebastian, though. He – " He cut the sentence off short, pressing his lips together tightly, turned back to the keyboard, riffling through his sheet music. I caught him up before he could change the subject.

"He what?"

He shot me an exasperated glower. "Tom, I'm really out of practice here."

I sat down on the stool next to him. "What're you trying to do, get rid of me? I thought you'd be happy to see me home." I looked straight at him, forcing him to meet my eyes. "Since you were the one who was so sure I wouldn't make it back."

He snapped away from me, and his fists crashed down on the keys, a shattering discord. "I've told you, I don't want to talk about that! I don't know what got into me that time – I've said I was sorry, and I don't even remember it! Can't you just drop it?"

He'd always been one to take everything hard. Mom used to say that was why he got sick so often – his migraines, and his allergies; she put it all down to nerves. I'd never had much patience with the idea. I thought she spoiled him. Maybe I went to the opposite extreme, pushed him too hard. Like when he was nine, that time we were playing Tarzan in the barn, when I sent him climbing up that rope even though I could see he was almost too scared to move. I can still remember the scream he gave as he fell ...

I don't learn by experience.

"I've got a reason for asking." I waited for him to ask me what it was. He didn't. So I told him what dad had said about Willy Walters. He sat, his face turned away, drumming his fingers impatiently on the piano; but he listened. He listened when I told him about Magic Williams, that day in 'Nam: April 8, 1970. He listened when I told him about Sam Beckett, what Sam Beckett had said, what he had done, in the days before Thanksgiving, two years before.

"Can you see a connection here, Sam?" I asked him, finally.

Silence.

"Because I can. I can see three sets of identical behaviour in three completely different individuals – people who don't even know one another exist, or barely do; people with nothing in common – or almost nothing in common. Except that I happen to know all three."

Still silence.

"Where does your Professor LoNigro stand on the time-travel debate, Sam?" I asked, deliberately needling him; since that time, Thanksgiving 1969, we'd all been painstakingly careful to avoid the topic – partly because Sam had genuinely been ill for a week or so afterward, sick and dizzy and disoriented, bad enough that mom had called in Doc Berger. He'd put it down to the fall Sam had taken during the basketball game against Bentleyville, diagnosed a mild concussion. At the time, that had made sense. Still did. That didn't mean it was the right answer, or the only one. When he didn't reply, I went on, "Or haven't you tried that one on him yet?"

He touched a note with his finger: C#; let his finger slide from the key. "He keeps an open mind," he said tonelessly. "It makes a nice change."

"He takes me seriously," I said, in heavy quote marks. "That's what you were going to say just now, isn't it? He listens to you. Something your family never quite did." We didn't. We couldn't. Half of what Sam used to talk about sounded just plain crazy; and that was the half we could – almost – follow. "Yeah?"

"It's his field," was all he said.

I kept my voice quiet. Words are not my specialty, and I wanted to make him understand what I was trying to say. "People change." I held up three fingers, counted them off. "I could have died on that mission, Sam. All you kids had a lot riding on that basketball game. Dad's been having trouble making his repayments to the bank."

"So?" he muttered.

"So," I said. "So I didn't die. Elk Ridge got to be state champs. And all Vernon's little wheeler-dealerings are gonna have to be reconsidered." I shifted around, trying to see his expression, trying to get some clues. Like I said, I don't understand my kid brother. I love him, but some days it's like living with an alien. A fair-haired, hazel-eyed BEM in bluejeans. "So – three major turning points. Uh, 'cusps'." I'd got the buzzword from reading Sam's copy of Stranger in a Strange Land. I hadn't understood that, either.

He still didn't look at me. "Things change," he said, dismissing everything I'd said in two short words. Or maybe not dismissing it, but unwilling to admit to anything more than coincidence, unwilling to lay himself open to the risk of yet more ridicule, unwilling to trust me. And whose fault was that? "They change all the time. Every decision, every move we make, the universe fragments a little bit more."

"And nothing we do can put things back the way they were," I finished for him. "Right?"

"Right," he said.

I reached out, put my hand over his, held it when he would have pulled away. "I'm not going to ask. I just wanted to say – I'm sorry. I know I've given you a hard time, sometimes. Try to make allowances, huh? The places you go, the speed you move – it isn't easy for the rest of us to follow. You've been growing away from us ever since the day you were born, leaving the rest of us all trailing ... it's hard to hold on to you." My fingers closed around his, as if taking the challenge literally. "If I've ever sounded like I was putting you down – I didn't mean to. I just didn't understand." I let my hold tighten a fraction. "I still don't understand, Sam. I just have this feeling ... that I owe you. I owe you a lot. And I wanted to say, thank you." I laughed ruefully. "Even though I'm not sure quite what for."

He did look up then, met my eyes. After a moment he smiled, his habitual wariness vanishing.

"I don't know either, Tom. But I know I'm going to find out." The smile widened. "I know I am – because I've done it already. I don't know how, or why, or if it's the right thing to do ..." He turned slightly on the stool, reached out and pulled me to him, wrapped his arms around me. "I only know that I'm glad I did it. And when it comes around to it, I'll do it again."

I wondered, what would happen if he didn't do it again? You can't alter the past. Can you? It stands to reason you can't.

Doesn't it?

But that kind of speculation is Sam's department, not mine; more than a few moments of it makes my head start to spin.

"Thank you, little brother," I said softly instead; and I hugged him tight.

***