Sam waited for the blinding flash of blue-white light to fade and then blinked to allow his eyes to adjust to the low light levels at his latest time-hopping destination. The smell of burning pine reached the physicist before he realized that he was in a mountain cabin. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, savoring the pleasant smell. When he opened them again, he was smiling.
Beyond the frosted windowpane a light snowfall drifted lazily down, adding to an already thick base carpeting the ground. Pines were scattered liberally across the landscape, along with a few naked trees. Sam guessed the elevation must be close to six thousand feet, maybe more. Good skiing conditions, he concluded before turning his attention back to his more immediate surroundings.
The fire popped loudly, startling him and causing his fingers to curl around the cool handles of his chair. He looked down. A wheelchair? A surge of panic rumbled through his mid-section.
A red and white wool blanket covered his legs, only a pair of moccasin-clad toes peeking out from under the heavy material. Concentrating, Sam commanded his toes to wiggle, but the tips of the leather shoes remained still. He swallowed.
"Move," he said. There! There was some movement… wasn't there? He tried again, but could not reproduce the twitch. "Oh, boy," he moaned aloud.
Don't panic, Sam told himself. It's not that bad. It's not really you. It didn't help. There was a sharper stab of panic and anger, followed by a more steady gripping fear. He took a deep breath and forced himself to relax.
Glancing around the room, Sam spotted a small square of mirrored glass hanging on the wall and rolled himself over to it. The face that stared back caught him by surprise. The man's thick brown hair was cut relatively short, just the way Sam liked it, and his hazel eyes had a generous collection of laugh lines, hinting at the man's nature. The face, almost handsome, comforted him. He leaned closer and smiled at himself. It was a playful grin.
Then he sat back. The man's hazel eyes were haunted, and he studied them closer. There was something in their depths that he couldn't quite put his finger on. Or was it just his own concerns?
Sam shook his head. Stop worrying about yourself, he admonished silently. You're here to help this man, or someone he knows…
His attention returned to his surroundings. The man had excellent taste in cabins, although the scientist wondered how on earth he had gotten to the location. If the landscape outside the cabin was any indication, it was rugged country, not something a wheelchair was going to tackle easily.
With nothing else to do, Sam rolled the chair slowly around the room, fumbling with the transportation until he finally felt like he was getting the hang of it. He stopped often, examining the knickknacks sitting out on the sparse but comfortable furniture, and checking behind three closed doors to find a bedroom, a closet, and the kitchen. The cabin walls were decorated with mementos marking the man's achievements – Para-Olympics, marathons, and even a successful skydive.
Impressive, Sam concluded, feeling better about his predicament. It wasn't like the man was helpless. "I just hope I don't have to throw myself out of a perfectly good airplane," he mumbled aloud.
Sam wheeled himself back to the kitchen, and since it had been designed for someone in a wheelchair, had little difficulty fixing himself some hot chocolate once he located all the necessary items.
He had just dropped several small marshmallows into the frothy liquid when the familiar sounds of Al's arrival broke the silence.
"Sorry, Sam," the project observer said, straightening his jacket. He leveled a sheepish smile on his friend. "I was, ah, out… with Tina, when you leaped and, well—"
"I know," Sam said, shaking his head. He took a sip of the hot drink and sighed contentedly, glad to have the company. The memories of his last leap were still fresh enough to make him appreciate any time he could spend with his friend. Then he realized what had been bothering him since he'd arrived. There was an odd sense of loneliness clinging to the cabin, and to the man in the wheelchair. Something he hadn't noticed until Al arrived.
"You know?" the observer asked, confused. "Know what?"
"I know why you're late."
Al's eyebrows rose innocently, then he wagged the bushy lines at the younger man. "Well, at least it's a good excuse," he concluded, chomping down on his cigar, a smug expression on his face.
"Who am I, Al?" Sam asked and then sipped again at the too-hot brew. "Besides a man in a wheelchair. And I can't walk. At least, I've been afraid to really try, but I know I can't wiggle my toes. I tried."
Al frowned as he reached into the pocket of his pin-stripped silver-gray jacket and extracted the hand link to Ziggy. "Well," he explained, beginning to punch various buttons on the device. "You're Kevin Grigsby. Thirty years old… an architect… This is your cabin, and it's in Nevada… near Lake Ta—" He slapped the pocket link. "Hoe. Ta-Hoe. Oh! Lake Tahoe! Hey, that means there're casinos!"
"And I'm here to help Kevin?" Sam asked, doubting there was little the man couldn't do for himself given the evidence he'd seen on the walls.
Al shrugged. "Ziggy's not sure. According to what we could dig up, Kevin has a very successful career. He meets an artist while he's doing blueprints for her new house, they rearrange the layout, get married in 1983, and even adopt a couple of kids. His business even sails through the recession of the early 90s when he starts building reclaimed homes with environmentally sound and recycled materials. I don't get it," he finished, pulling the cigar from between his teeth and waving it in frustration. "He doesn't even get divorced!"
Sam gave the man a critical look, ignoring the feeble attempt at humor. "Al, I have to be here, in a wheelchair, for a reason."
Al reciprocated with a wounded expression. "I know that," he stated simply, then grinned. "By the way, Kevin is having a ball, parading around in your body."
"Glad to hear it. Now, what—?"
"I'll go back and see what we can find." He waved his cigar with a flourish. "Don't run away." The look on the man's face forced Sam to chuckle and Al looked down at the wheelchair, his expression clouding. "Be careful, Sam."
"Get out of here," the physicist said softly. He watched Al leave, the sense of loneliness settling over him again. Shaking the oppressive cloak off as best he could, he wheeled himself back into the living room.
There were long bookshelves on two of the walls, both filled with books covering an amazing range of topics. Sam scanned the titles and then rolled over to the fireplace when nothing grabbed his interest. It was constructed of a light blue-gray flagstone that complimented the rough pine walls. He added another split log and turned himself around so he could see the whole room. There was a couch, so Kevin must get company, Sam thought. And there was a desk, and a drafting table, each sitting in a corner near a window.
The dancing flames drew his attention, accentuating the cold he felt. It wasn't all from the weather. He wished Al was there. Before he could prevent it, the images of Al kneeling in a rice paddy, holding another prisoner of war flashed through his mind. He shuddered and shook his head.
Al was fine. He might have had to leave Al behind, but he did get out, and he was fine. And his friends were fine, too. Still, there was a lingering specter of guilt that continued to haunt his soul, and even Al's forgiveness wasn't enough to chase it away. Sam shook his head. He never thought he'd be haunted by Vietnam.
Rolling closer to the warmth the fireplace offered, Sam noticed a clothbound book lying on the hearth. Bending over, the physicist ran a fingertip over the surface. The pattern reminded him of the old fashioned quilts his grandmother had sewn. He picked it up and opened it. "Journal" was printed across the first page, but there was no name or date. Sam's forehead wrinkled. Was it Kevin's? Maybe this would help explain why he was here. He turned the page and began to read.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
August 24, 1982 – Today was the first day of classes, and I wasn't prepared. My creative writing professor asked: "What is your most vivid memory from childhood?"
When I thought about it, I was stunned, and digging through my memories I grew more and more afraid. How could I tell them?
As stories about puppies and birthday parties unfolded, I knew I was lost. They'd never understand. I didn't understand.
I could lie. I could make something up. But that made me mad. Aren't my memories mine? Aren't they just as good, even if they aren't sweet, or funny, or cute?
My turn came near the end. Just before me, a girl talked about a time when her mother bought her a yellow party dress with big red butterflies. The others laughed. It was a funny story. Mine wasn't going to be so humorous. But the professor said to pick the earliest memory I had that wasn't something I'd heard my parents tell. I knew what it was, but I didn't want to tell them. It was dark compared to the rest. The professor said go ahead, so I did.
I told them that my most vivid memories were about my cousins: "The guys." They were like brothers to me, still are. I grew up with them, lived with them, fought, played, confided, teased… In my earliest memory, my aunts and uncles were upset. But no one was talking about why.
I remember a fire burning in the fireplace, and me, sitting as close as I could to it because they were making me afraid, and that, in turn, made me cold. My Aunt Sheila turned on the TV. It was the news. The images I saw and heard didn't make much sense, but everyone was watching so intently that I did the same.
My dad sat down in the big chair behind me. He leaned forward and put his hands on my shoulders. They were big hands then and they were warm. I leaned into those hands, feeling a little safer.
"Do you see those numbers?" he asked me softly, gesturing at the screen.
I looked and nodded. There were two numbers.
"The one on top is the number of Americans who have been killed in Vietnam," he explained. "The other number is the number of the enemy killed by our soldiers."
I watched the numbers disappear and wondered why people were killing each other. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do. I scooted a little closer to the fire. More numbers came up and I felt better; I had something to do. I studied them closely, wanting to remember them.
"Those are the numbers of the American men who have been wounded," my dad told me. "If anything happens to the boys while they're gone, if they're killed or wounded, they'll be one of those numbers, too."
He sounded sad, but I was excited. The numbers made sense to me then.
My cousins had left, one, then two more, and one, until all ten were gone. They had all flown away to a place I couldn't then pronounce – Vietnam. I wasn't sure where it was, but I knew it had to be very far away for everyone to be so worried. I didn't understand why they had to go.
But now it was clearer. If anything bad happened to them, the numbers would tell my aunts and uncles about it and I was sure they could go help them. I decided that if I watched the numbers carefully enough, I'd be able to know if anything happened to the guys, too. But I never learned to read the truth from our TV screen…
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Feeling like a voyeur, Sam snapped the journal closed and hastily returned it to the hearth. It wasn't Kevin's journal, but it must belong to someone close to him. Was Kevin one of the cousins mentioned? Was it in Vietnam that he'd been paralyzed? Even as he thought the words, Sam knew they were true.
So who had written the words? Kevin's cousin, obviously, but who was that? The style of the written script reminded Sam of his sister's, and he guessed the writer was a woman.
He felt a tingle of dread shiver through his midsection. Vietnam. He had just escaped that hell not so long ago. But Al hadn't— He shook himself. Al had come home, just not when Sam had hoped he would.
It was dark outside now, and rolling over to the window, the physicist stared out of the closing circle of clear pane into the eerie snow-bright night. Something felt wrong, he concluded silently. Very wrong, but he didn't have a clue what it was all about.
Sam felt a slight rumble of anger. Al hadn't told him what year it was. Grabbing the chair's wheels, he pulled around and rolled over to the small television setting on one of the bookcases. Tugging the button, he switched through the channels, stopping on a news broadcast. Dan Rather's face stared out, speaking silently. Sam turned the volume up.
"…And tonight preparations continue for the Veteran's Day parade in Washington DC next week. President Reagan announced that there would be a—" The picture jumped and went to snow, then returned momentarily only to cut out again.
"Reagan," Sam breathed, pressing in the power button. "Well, '80 to '88," he concluded. Veteran's Day was a week away, so it was sometime in early November. Maybe the journal was current? That would make it November, 1982. He'd have to check with Al when he returned to be sure.
Trying to escape the haunting uneasiness, Sam headed for the bedroom. Maybe if he got a good night's sleep things would look better in the morning. His mother had always promised him they would.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Sam jumped, nearly spilling the coffee that was halfway to his lips. He glared over his shoulder at Al. "Knock next time, will you?"
The older man grinned. "Sorry." His expression turned more serious. "What's got you so jumpy?" The grin returned. "Bears?"
"What did Ziggy come up with?" Sam asked, ignoring the questions and turning his attention to the hot oatmeal that waited for him, the surface sprinkled with cinnamon and nutmeg.
Al leaned over and sniffed, his face wrinkling in petulance. "One of these days I'm going to find a way to tap into your olfactory—"
The observer stepped back. "Not a thing, Sam. I can't—"
"It's not Kevin," the physicist interrupted.
The modified kitchen appliances caught Al's attention. He wandered off to examine them, bending over to get a closer look at something and straining Sam's already stretched patience. He'd had a sleepless night, odd dreams haunting him whenever he managed to doze off.
"Al!" he snapped, causing the observer to straighten in the middle of the stove. The hologram stepped clear of the appliance.
"Oh, sorry. It's November third, 1982. Kevin lives here. His large, extended family keeps him supplied and visits regularly. Oh! And Kevin was in Lonnie Martin's old unit in 'Nam," Al added excitedly. "Can you believe it? It really is a small world sometimes."
Sam felt a shimmer of unease twist in the pit of his stomach. "Al?" he asked. "Is Lonnie okay?"
"Lonnie? Sam, are you okay?" the observer asked, stepping closer. "You're acting strange – stranger than usual – and you look… sick."
Sam shook his head. "I'm okay," he replied softly, pushing the only half-finished cereal out of the way. "Just tired. Al, do you think this leap could have something to do with Lonnie?"
The observer looked confused. He straightened his metallic dark-green jacket. It clashed nicely with the turquoise shirt he wore. "I doubt it," he said, removing the hand-link from his pocket and tapping across the keys. "Why?"
Sam shook his head. "I don't know. I just have this feeling that something's… wrong. Not with Kevin, but with something, or someone, else."
Trying unsuccessfully to hide his concern, Al slapped the link against the palm of his hand and poked several more buttons. He shook his head. "Nothing. Lonnie's in Washington, working at the Pentagon. Everything looks… normal." He shrugged and dropped the link back into his pocket while he watched his friend carefully.
Sam sighed. "It's someone connected to Kevin; I can feel it. Have Ziggy run a check."
"That could take days, Sam," the observer countered, shaking his head. "And where do I start?"
Sam rolled off toward the living room, saying, "Family. Start with his family."
Al activated the door and stepped back fully into his own time, his worry increasing.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Sam rolled away from one of the living room windows. The snow had stopped, but the sky was still dark and foreboding. Wrong, he thought. Something is wrong….
Reaching the fireplace, he added two logs to the dying blaze, exciting it again. He was starting to feel confined. He hadn't wanted to watch TV, and even though Kevin had an excellent collection of reading material, he couldn't concentrate well enough to lose himself in a book. So, after looking through Kevin's latest architectural designs, Sam had resorted to staring out the window. Now he contented himself, staring into the fire.
What am I supposed to do here? he asked the snapping flames. Why Kevin? What's going on?
Warming his hands, Sam's gaze fell on the journal again. No, he told himself firmly. It's none of your business.
Why? another voice in his head countered. It sounded a little like Al's voice. Maybe you're supposed to read it.
Katey was mad at me for a week after I read her diary, Sam countered. It's not right. It's an invasion of privacy.
That isn't Katey's diary, was the smug reply. Besides, Kevin was reading it. Go on.
With a sigh, Sam reached out and picked up the journal. It felt wrong. It felt like he was peeping into someone's innermost thoughts. So why did Kevin have the journal? And whose journal was it?
He opened the cover and thumbed the pages twice. Opening the journal to the middle, Sam read…
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
September 17, 1982 – I remember Musser's funeral. Edward "Musser" Holt. The boy never could pronounce "mess" – it always came out a "muss" – and he should know; he made enough of them.
Musser was the first of my cousins to introduce me to the quiet thrill of fishing with an old tree limb, a piece of line, a hook and a freshly-caught sow bug. I let him bait the hook, not because I had hesitations about the loss of the sow bug to our afternoon's pleasure, but because he looked so proud and sure of himself as he explained the most humane way to go about the procedure. Then we'd ask the spirit of the sow bug to make the fish hungry, just like old Jim Browneagle had told us to, then tossed them out into the water…
It was cold that morning, the sun declining to exert itself enough to evaporate the gray haze that hung low over the valley. It was early, but the stock had already been fed and the chores were finished, just like an ordinary day. I climbed into my dad's pick-up truck, neither of us speaking, to make our trip.
I think it was the silence that frightened me the most. Musser wasn't a quiet boy. He wasn't rowdy, but he was full of life and the spirit of exploration. I was seven when he left with Kevin, Craig and Philip. Paul, Michael, and Mark had left the year before, and Brian, James, and Matthew would all leave shortly after the funeral. Musser was nineteen then, twelve years older than I was – a fact he never let me forget.
There were some men I didn't recognize at the cemetery. They were wearing uniforms. Paradise was a small community then, and I knew everyone who lived there. I was related to most of them. The strangers were probably just boys like Musser, but their expressions made them look old to me. Craig was with them, quiet and withdrawn – Musser's brother, my tickle nemesis. It wasn't like Craig to look so sad. I wondered why my dad hadn't told me he was home.
My dad guided me over to the first row of folding chairs that had been borrowed from the local Rebecca lodge. They reminded me of the soldiers, standing in a row at attention – perfectly straight, perfectly silent, perfectly still.
Dad and I sat next to Musser's parents – Uncle Bill and Aunt Nancy. They looked guilty, like they had done something wrong, but I couldn't imagine what it could be. Before I could ask, everyone else started to sit down. The birds fell silent, like they were waiting for something extraordinary to happen.
I don't remember what the pastor said that day. I don't know what church he was from, or why he even came. None of us went to church. My Uncle Ed said that God was all around us, in everything – the land, the living things, the people, and I believed him. I wondered if God was with Musser now, or if Musser was with God. But most of all, I wondered why he wasn't there with Craig.
We all stood while the pastor talked some more, and then he prayed. I liked the chanted prayers I'd heard once when I was up on the Shoshone reservation better. I fidgeted and my dad gave me one of those looks he reserved for important occasions when I was to remain on my best behavior. I stopped fidgeting.
Standing there, I remember that I thought I could hear the tears rolling down my aunt's face. They were louder than the words the pastor was saying. It all felt wrong – too cold, too early, too sad. Then the words stopped and one of the men in uniform said something and there was shooting. Even the guns sounded dull and far away in the damp air, more like pops, or distant drums. Wes played his trumpet. He was fourteen and the notes wavered a little, but no one seemed to notice. It was a sad song.
Musser's mom laid a rose on the coffin lid before my uncles used a rope to lower it into the grave. It seemed like the hole was very deep because it took a long time for them to get it down. My heart was beating fast, and I didn't want to watch. I looked at Craig. His eyes were wide, like he was surprised, and he was sweating. When he screamed, I think I was the only one who didn't jump. It seemed almost natural at the time.
Craig ran to the edge of the grave and jumped down into the hole. He landed on the coffin. It was the loudest sound I'd heard all morning.
He started beating on the wooden lid, yelling, cussing, telling Musser to wake up, wake up, get up.
No one moved. Even now I don't know if it was shock, or fear, or embarrassment, or something else that kept them rooted there in front of their folding chairs, but it was like they had all been turned into statues.
Craig was crying like he had when his little sister drowned. Rachel was the only cousin who was my age and when she died I lost a sister, but I inherited a big brother in the bargain. It was a role we both appreciated.
I don't know why I did what I did. I didn't think about it, and no one said, "don't do that," so I just did it. I walked to the edge of the grave, and I sat down on the damp ground, my feet dangling into the pit. Craig was crouched down on the coffin, his head buried in the crooks of his arms, crying, yelling. His words were incomprehensible, but I knew what he meant.
I pushed off the edge and landed behind him. Craig didn't move, he just kept mumbling that Musser wasn't dead, that he couldn't be dead. "Dear God, dead God," he chanted as he rocked back and forth.
I called his name and Craig looked back over his shoulder. He scrambled around so he was on his knees in front of me. He grabbed my shoulders, his fingers digging into my skin so hard I almost cried.
"He's not dead," he whispered, his eyes locked on mine, pleading with me to understand and to believe.
But I knew Musser was dead. I also knew he wasn't gone. Grandma always told us the family would be waiting for us on the other side. Musser would be there, too. I knew that, but Craig had forgotten. I reminded him.
"I was there," he said. "He wasn't dead. He was screaming. He wasn't dead."
I remember reaching out and touching his arm. He pulled me close, crying on my shoulder. I couldn't breathe, but I didn't wiggle.
"I love you," I said when he finally stopped crying.
Craig lifted me up and handed me to my dad. The tears were still falling, but he seemed better somehow. My dad helped Craig out. He gave him a hug. It was the first time I saw my dad hug another man.
Three days later Craig left to go back to the war, but his brother, Edward E. Holt, "Musser," had come home to stay.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Sam jumped, slamming the journal closed as the front door crashed open, spilling in a man hidden behind an armload of firewood. The physicist caught his breath, but released it as a sigh when the man said, "The pass was closed, or I would have made it last night." The words echoed out from behind the burden. "Boy, what a mess! The snowplows can't keep up."
The man maneuvered over to the fireplace and the split logs were transferred to the dwindling stack piled along the blue-gray stones. "There were cars off the road all the way up to the pass," he continued. "And the weather report I heard was for another twelve hours of on-again, off-again snow."
When Sam finally got a look at his companion, he found a walking version of Kevin. They couldn't be mistaken for anything but related. "Uh, hi," Sam ventured. A brother?
"Kevin, you're weird," the man replied as he stood and brushed his hands off on his jeans. "I told you living out here all alone would drive you stir-crazy sooner or later. I'm already crazy, but I was holding out a glimmer of hope for you." The man smiled. "I'm going to go bring in the food and the rest of the stuff. Hope you have some coffee ready."
"In the kitchen," Sam said, watching him go. Same brown hair, same hazel eyes, same facial planes – definitely a brother… or maybe a cousin? In either case, he liked this man.
By the time the groceries were unpacked, along with additional books, drafting supplies and the mail, Sam was sure of his initial assessment. The visitor collapsed onto the sofa.
"So, did you get that house finished for that lady artist?"
"Uh, not yet," Sam said, pushing himself over to stop between the fire and the couch.
"I thought you wanted to get that done ASAP," the man replied, removing his boots and stretching out along the length of the cushions. He folded his arms behind his head. "So you could see her again. Is this getting serious, cousin?"
Sam blushed slightly, remembering a similar question coming from Tom. "I guess I just… lost the inspiration," he explained. Reaching down, the physicist picked up the journal and set it in his lap. Maybe this man would know who the author was.
"You read all of Brat's journal yet?" he asked around a jaw-popping yawn.
"Brat?" Sam questioned, sure he'd heard the name wrong.
The man laughed, a nostalgic expression on his face. "You remember why we gave her that nickname?"
Sam shook his head. So it was a woman; a cousin to these two men.
"I think it was when you and I were about fourteen or fifteen. Uncle Milt told us she was our responsibility – a four-year-old girl. God, there couldn't have been a more cruel fate, could there?" He chuckled. "But damned if that kid wasn't tough. I think it was Musser who started callin' her Brat."
Sam grinned and nodded. It felt so familiar. His family had issued nicknames to all its members, too. Before he could respond, the phone sitting on the desk rang, the rough jangling dispelling the comfortable atmosphere. The man rolled off the couch and snatched it up. "Hi, this is Craig… Yeah, he's fine." He looked at Sam, shook his head and rolled his eyes. "Yeah, mom, I know it's still snowing on and off… Yeah, that's what I hear, too – twelve hours… Yeah, I'll stay up here until it stops, or Wheels tosses me out."
Sam shook his head. He should have guessed that one.
"Okay, Mom… Right… Yeah, you take care. Bye now." Hanging up, Craig returned to the couch and dropped down again. "She worries too much."
"A mother's job," Sam replied. He had at least a hundred questions.
Craig yawned. "I guess so. Wake me up for supper," he muttered as he rolled over and drifted off to sleep.
"Thanks," Sam said, shaking his head. So this was Craig.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Sam was in the kitchen, staring belligerently at a large pot of water that refused to boil. The pealed and sliced potatoes sat waiting on the counter.
"You know what they say about that," Al said, stepping up alongside the physicist.
Sam gave the project observer an indulgent, if annoyed, look.
"Well, it's true," Al countered. "My fourth— No, third— No, fourth wife used to—"
"Al, did you find anything?"
The observer's expression turned decidedly uncomfortable and he shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
"Al?" Sam pressed.
Slipping his cigar back into his coat pocket without lighting it, the older man fidgeted before he explained, "Kevin has a cousin, another vet, Cr—"
Al paused, his eyebrows pinching together above his nose. "Are you reading my mind?"
Sam smiled slightly. "No," he said, depositing the potatoes into the now-boiling water. "He's asleep on the couch."
"Oh," Al said, his gaze fixing on the closed kitchen door. He walked over and stuck his holographic head through the wood to look. Turning back, he regarded Sam carefully. "How's he acting?"
"Fine," he said, catching the worry in the older man's voice. "Why? What's going on?"
"Craig Holt was convicted of manslaughter in January of 1983. He killed a woman, his cousin, and put Kevin in the hospital," Al explained. "You've got a dangerous man out there, Sam."
"Murder?" The physicist set the knife aside so he could add herbs to the chicken breasts he was planning to wrap and bake in foil. "I don't believe it, Al."
"Manslaughter," the observer corrected. He paced in the smallish kitchen as he consulted the link to Ziggy. "Craig Holt was convicted of killing his cousin on November 12th, 1982. It was ruled an accident. He was having flashbacks. He was sentenced to two years in the medium security prison in Carson City."
"And?" Sam prompted.
"He was killed in a prison fight four months after his arrival."
Sam met the observer's eyes. "How did it happen?"
"Ziggy's working on the trial transcripts, but from what we do have, it looks like he was having flashbacks to Vietnam," Al said, shaking his head. "Poor guy. I'll let you know as soon as we find out more."
Sam nodded. "And find out who the female cousin is, and where she is."
"Will do," Al replied, stepping into the doorway to the imaging Chamber. "Be careful. It sounds like Craig has a severe case of PTSD."
"Delayed stress? But he acts fine."
Al shrugged, the worry he felt clear in his expression. "Just be careful, Sam," he repeated.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The scream that interrupted Sam's thoughts nearly caused him to bolt from the wheelchair. With a frustrated, muttered curse, he grabbed the wheels and left the potatoes he was mashing, plowing into the living room.
"Incoming!" Craig yelled from the couch. Caught in the paralysis of the nightmare, only the rapid rise and fall of the man's chest matched the frantic tone of his voice. "Get down! Sniper! Sniper!"
"Craig?" Sam called out in a shaky voice.
"Motherfuck!" Craig screamed. "Oh, man, oh, man. Damn it, where the hell are you?" A second raw scream tore from the man's chest. "Oh no. God, no. Musser? Oh, God."
"Craig," Sam said more forcefully as he rolled closer.
Sam inched in closer. "Craig, it's a dream. Come on. Wake up."
"Help him, man. You can't leave him like that!"
Tears forced their way out from behind the man's pressed eyelids, rolling over his temples. Sam hesitated a moment, then reached out to lightly touch the man's arm. "Craig."
With a strangled cry, the sleeping man sprang up to a seated position, his feet driving along the cushions, pressing him into the corner of the couch where he curled into a near ball.
"Hey, it's okay," Sam said calmly, holding out his hands in a gesture of assurance. "It was just a dream."
Half-wild hazel eyes regarded the physicist, unseeing. "Musser?"
"It's Kevin," Sam said. "You're at my cabin. It's okay. You just had a bad dream."
Craig sucked in a shaky breath and scrubbed the back of his hand over his eyes. "Kev?"
"Yeah," Sam said, reaching out to grip the man's knee. "You okay?"
"Yeah," he breathed. "Yeah. I'm okay."
"You want to talk about it?" Sam asked.
"No!" was the emphatic reply.
"Okay," the physicist said, but he couldn't stop the next question. "Has this been happening a lot recently?"
Craig nodded as he ran his fingers through his tousled hair. "Man, ever since the hostages came home, you know?"
Sam nodded, hoping it would keep the man talking.
"The parades, I guess. Hell, I don't know why, but it pisses me off. No one gave a damn about us. They still don't. It isn't fair. Musser died over there, man. You and Mark—" Craig stopped himself, a fragile smile stretching across his lips. "Shit. Listen to me. Guess I'm just feelin' sorry for myself."
"It's okay," Sam said, adding, "Really."
Craig nodded, his eyes growing bright in the firelight as unshed tears filled them. "Is supper ready?"
"Yeah, supper's ready," Sam said, hoping a good meal would help turn the man's attention away from the nightmare. He knew with certainty that he was here to help this man, but how?
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
September 19, 1982 – Whatever dragged Craig into Musser's grave that day – frustration, anger, fear, sorrow – killed a part of him. But that dead piece of his soul wasn't buried with Musser. It has lain in his heart and slowly poisoned a beautiful, bright spirit.
I've been reading about the memorial they've built, and about all the vets who are going to go and march in the Veteran's Day parade in Washington DC this year before the formal dedication. Maybe if Craig went, it might help him.
The guys at the VA want to go, even Charlie. He asked me if I was going to go, since Blaine's a vet. I told him I'd ask. Charlie said that my husband would want to go, and that if I went with Blaine, then there wasn't any reason why I couldn't take Charlie and push his chair. I wish he could walk in the parade, but Charlie has no legs, and with only one arm he can't push his chair by himself either. But, as Charlie told me, he still has his eyes and he wants to see what they're calling "The Wall." He says he wants to pay his respects to the men "who missed the freedom bird."
If Blaine decides that he doesn't want to go, I'll still take Charlie, even if he is getting a motorized wheelchair before then. But Charlie's right – Blaine will go. He has his own respects to pay.
And I want to see my cousin's names. It'll be strange, looking for Edward Holt. He was always Musser. And Philip, he was always "Trouble".
Why didn't Kevin act like Craig had when his brother died? Kevin and Philip were close, too. Sometimes I think Craig gets mad at Kevin for not acting like he did, but Kevin had another war to fight when he came home – one with his own body – and maybe that made all the difference.
I hope I can talk all of the guys into going. I think it might help them heal their wounds. Maybe. I hope so. They have lost so much. I'd like to see them find a little peace.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Where are you, Al?" Sam wondered aloud. It wasn't like the observer not to show up, especially when he was supposed to be getting information that was important to the physicist. Sam knew he had to act quickly, but how fast was something only Al could tell him.
Craig was outside, splitting more wood for the fire. After reading the last journal entry the night before, Sam was convinced that what the author had said was true. Craig Grigsby needed to come to terms with his experiences in Vietnam, but delayed stress groups were just becoming generally accepted.
The Memorial, he thought. The Wall. Sam had been there once before, just before he had leaped back into the Southeast Asian jungles with a younger Al. The physicist shivered. It was a bittersweet memory, and still too fresh to be ignored.
Sam brushed a tear off his cheek. "I wish it had been different," he whispered to his absent friend. At least Lonnie Martin and Paul Ironhorse had been saved, and, in the long run, that had helped Al, and for that Sam was eternally grateful.
And now this leap was also tied up with Vietnam. Vietnam and The Wall. It was so close to Veteran's Day; did he have time to take Craig and go to Washington?
The rushing sound of the Imaging Chamber door parting stilled Sam's rambling thoughts. Al stepped into the living room, his face set in a neutral mask that looked out of place on the man's normally expressive features.
"What's going on?" Sam immediately asked.
The observer's lips pressed together in frustration before he growled, "It seems that the Board is a little hot about this leap, Sam."
"Why?" he asked. Reaching down, he gripped the wheels of his chair so he could pull it around and study the observer more closely. The man was mad, livid, in fact.
"I told you Kevin was in Lonnie's unit…"
Sam nodded, his eyes narrowing in concentration. What could have upset the nit-pickers now? "So?" he asked, hoping that would prompt Al to continue.
"Craig Holt was a Green Beret in Vietnam. Care to guess who his commander was in 1971?"
Sam's eyes brightened, a slight smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Paul Ironhorse?"
Al's hands rose in frustration. "The Board's convinced this all has something to do with me. Just like the last time."
"What does Ziggy say?"
Al pulled a cigar out of his jacket pocket and fumbled it through his fingers.
"Al," Sam chided, "does Ziggy agree?"
"Ziggy says there's a twenty-five percent chance that you'll run into me in this timeline, but I don't see how. I'm already working on the Star Bright project with you."
Sam shook his head. "It's not you, Al. It's Craig." He paused, looking over his shoulder at the closed front door.
Al shot a smug, satisfied expression at the viewing members of the Board.
"At least, I think it is," Sam added. Al's expression fell, causing the scientist to hastily add, "I think I have to get Craig to the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial."
Al's eyebrows rose in surprise, his problems with the Project watchdogs forgotten. "That's right. It's almost Veteran's Day, isn't it?"
Sam waited, watching a wistful expression develop across Al's face. "What?"
The observer shook his head. "It's nothing."
"Al, what?" Sam pressed as he rolled closer and leveled one of his best "please" looks on the man. For some reason he knew this was important, and the familiar stab of frustration reminded him that he couldn't reach out and grip the man's shoulder to extol the information.
Returning the cigar to its pocket, Al paced several steps before stopping. He turned to face Sam. "Enough with the puppy-eyes, okay?" he said, trying to sound mad. It didn't work. He was doomed. "I wanted to go to the dedication, but…" He trailed off.
"Why didn't you?"
Al ran a hand over his hair, trying to look more confident than he felt. "I was still… angry. The hostages coming home from Iran had stirred up a lot of resentments for me. I can't really explain it, Sam."
"Craig said about the same thing."
"I'm not surprised. That was the trigger that set off a lot of Vietnam vets," Al replied sadly, picking at a piece of non-existent lint on his charcoal and orange jacket.
The slow nod of Sam's head told the observer that the physicist remembered those days. It hadn't been an easy time for Al – heavy drinking, late nights, and forgotten weekends were all a mainstay. It had nearly cost him his career, and probably would have if it hadn't been for a certain well-meaning theoretical physicist who stepped in and diverted attention from Al's actions.
He looked over at Sam, his eyes filling with unshed tears. After a while the pain had subsided, buried under a growing layer of friendship and interest in the blond idealist's crazy scheme for time travel.
"Al, can you get me a phone number for Lonnie or Captain Ironhorse?"
The observer grinned slyly and tapped his finger across the hand link. "Like I already told you, Lonnie's at the Pentagon…" He rattled the piece of machinery, causing several beeps and moans to issue from it. His eyes rolled up and he glared at someone Sam couldn't see. "Thank you," he said peevishly. "Here we are." He waited for Sam to roll over to the desk and grab a pen from an assortment poking out of an old coffee mug before reading off the number.
"And Ironhorse?" Sam asked him.
Two slaps and a vigorous shake of the hand-link later the observer shook his head. "Nothing, Sam. Major Ironhorse is part of Delta Force – real hush-hush stuff. His records are sealed. Ziggy can't get in without an order from someone in the Pentagon."
"This'll have to do then," the scientist said matter-of-factly as he tapped his pen against the pad with Martin's number on it.
The observer nodded, his head cocking slightly to the right. There was something else bothering Sam. "What's up?" he asked softly.
Sam's met the observer's gaze, feeling the affection they shared. What would I do without you, Al? he wondered. "I— I feel like I'm caught in a dream, Al."
The older man's expression stilled and his lower lip tugged forward in thought.
"It's like I'm being haunted, by something… or someone… Craig's cousin. How was she killed?"
Al folded his arms across his chest, and rested his chin in one palm. "He thought she was VC," he explained quietly. "She was visiting, up here. Kevin was out on the back porch. She was in the kitchen. Craig woke up from a nightmare, heard a noise, and reacted."
Sam shook his head and shivered. "Why is her journal here? Why does Kevin have it?"
"What journal?" Al asked, a confused frown wrinkling his forehead.
"It has to be hers. Kevin has a journal, and the writer – a woman – is talking about Craig and Kevin. It has to be hers; they call her 'Brat.'"
The observer grinned and shrugged. "I'll ask Kevin."
"Thanks," Sam said, rolling for the door. "I'm going to go call Lonnie."
Al smiled. "Lieutenant Colonel Martin, now, Sam."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Colonel Martin," came the upbeat voice.
"Colonel Lonnie Martin?"
"Yes," the voice replied. "Can I help you?"
"Sir, I don't know if you remember me, but this is Kevin Grigsby—"
"Kevin? How the hell are you, man?" Lonnie asked, the genuine pleasure in his voice causing Sam to smile.
"Just fine, sir," he said, grinning. "But I do have a problem I was hoping you could help me with."
"What is it?"
"Do you know a—?" Sam hesitated while he tried to remembered what rank Al had said Ironhorse held in 1982. "Major Paul Ironhorse?"
"Yes. Yes, I do. Why?"
"Well, sir, my cousin was in Major Ironhorse's old unit, and, well, to tell you the truth, he isn't doing real well. I was hoping that the Major might be able to convince Craig to attend the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington."
"I see," Lonnie replied, his voice soft with honest concern. "You plan on going?"
"If I can talk Craig into it."
"I'll see what I can do."
"I'd really appreciate it."
"Tell you what," Lonnie said, "plan on the trip. I'd like to see you again. I'm sure we can talk your cousin into going, even if I can't track Paul down. But I know he's around here somewhere. And Ironhorse can talk a river into changing course when he wants to."
"I hope so, sir," Sam said, meaning every word.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
October 1, 1982 – Of the 3.14 million vets who served in the Vietnam theater, a little more than 15% of the men (more than 470,000 individuals) currently suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. 8.5% of female veterans are also suffering. And 350,000 vets have partial PTSD. The total number of vets who have had experiences of clinically significant PTSD since their tour of duty is 1.7 million.
Vets experience higher rates of divorce, suicide, substance abuse, homelessness, sporadic employment, depression, manic episodes, dysthymia, obsessive-compulsive disorders, panic attacks, generalized anxiety, anti-social personality disorders, and chronic health problems. They are, in a word, suffering.
And there is another group of people who aren't counted in these statistics – the families and friends of these men and women. They, too are suffering. They suffer from an inability to help, an inability to reach out and take away the pain they see, an inability to erase the past.
Oh, we care. We listen. We try to help. But the process is slow and sometimes we just can't understand.
I want to help. And I think I have. I've given Mark backrubs and listened to his stories. I've held Kevin while he cried over memories of his days in the VA. And I've sat across from Paul while he tried to explain why the world looked different. Matt and I have walked so he could vent the frustration he feels over not being able to "live" to the fullest. I've driven James to group and listened to the pain in his voice. I've argued with Brian when he wouldn't go to group to face his pain. And I've laughed with Michael when he slipped into "battle-talk" when he pounded his thumb in his mother's presence. I've held Craig, rocking him in my arms while he crumbled in on himself.
But I haven't been able to talk to them about my memories, my pain. I can't tell them about watching the numbers on TV, or standing at the airport, listening to the protesters who jeered the people I loved. I can't tell them what it feels like to hear the night screams, or what it feels like to watch their eyes, so haunted, while they search out something that just isn't there. I've seen the changes in each of them – the lost smiles, the carefully controlled emotions, the avoidance of sounds, places, smells.
Maybe one day we'll all heal. I pray we do.
And I guess I hope this trip to Washington will be another step along that road. For them, and for me.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Paul, good to see you, man," Lonnie said, extending his hand. Ironhorse took it, a crooked smile on his face. "How the hell are you?"
"Fine, just fine," the major replied. "You're looking good, Lonnie. Those silver oak leaves look right at home."
Lonnie shook his head. The large black man cut an imposing figure, the battle edge of his Green Beret days not lost with his promotion to a more administrative position. "You should've seen them first, Paul," he said, leading the way to one of the commissaries.
Ironhorse followed alongside Martin, shaking his head. "No, thank you," he said emphatically. "I like it out in the field. I'd go crazy tethered to a desk."
"Believe me, so did I," Lonnie said as they entered and headed for the cafeteria-style line. The colonel selected a light lunch for himself, envying Ironhorse, who opted for hot roast beef, mashed potatoes with gravy, two biscuits and a salad. "But it's not so bad, once you get used to it. The bull can get a little thick around some of the planning tables, though," he chuckled.
"I'll bet," Paul grinned, starting to fish out his wallet.
Lonnie waved him off, slipping his ID out and handing it to the clerk, who rang them up.
"Have you seen Calabrici?" the major asked.
Lonnie shook his head as they worked their way over to a table in a less crowded area and sat down. "Not for a few months. Seems he's gotten himself attached to some hush-hush project out in New Mexico. It's located on part of the old Manhattan Project site. Hell if I know what it's about, though – one of those 'need-to-know' arrangements."
Ironhorse nodded as he enjoyed the better than average fare. Rank did have its privileges when it came to food.
"The reason I contacted you…" Lonnie said around a bite of salad. "I got a call from one of my old squad members. He said his cousin was in one of your units in-country." Reaching into his pocket, Lonnie pulled out the slip of paper that he had written the man's name on. "Craig Holt," he read.
Ironhorse looked up, his eyebrows arched in surprise.
"I take it you remember this guy?"
Setting his fork down, Paul took a sip of his coffee and wiped his mouth. "Very well. He was a good soldier – bright kid, quick. And he had an uncanny ability to stay out of trouble. I thought he'd make a fine officer if he decided to make the military his career. What's up?"
"Well, I don't know what the guy's doing, but his cousin said he was having trouble adjusting."
Ironhorse's face settled in a troubled frown. "What did his cousin think I can do?"
"Kevin thought you might be able to talk Craig into attending the dedication of the Memorial," Lonnie explained.
"The Wall?" Paul echoed, his expression turning thoughtful. "Hell, I'm still trying to convince myself to go."
Lonnie chuckled softly, pushing the remainder of the greens aside. "I know what you mean. Look, Kevin Grigsby was a good man. He even saved my butt a couple of times. I owe him. I invited him out. We could make it a foursome," he suggested, then smiled broadly. "Hell, we'll call Al, make it a real reunion. What do you say?"
Ironhorse grinned. "I'd like to see Calabrici again, and Holt. You have a number for him?"
"Sure do," Lonnie said, sliding the scrap of paper across the table.
Ironhorse picked it up, glanced at the number and then slipped it into his pocket. "I'll give him a call this evening."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Craig? You ready? They're going to be here any time, now," Sam said to the closed bedroom door.
"In a minute," was the muffled, not-too-thrilled reply.
Sam shook his head. The night Ironhorse had called, talking Craig into going to Washington D.C., the physicist was sure he would leap, but that had been two days ago. He glanced nervously at his watch. It had been good to hear the man's voice again. Paul's calm tone and quiet assurance had left the time-hopping scientist feeling certain that everything would work out… If he could get Craig out of the bedroom and to the airport on time.
The sudden honking of a horn heralded the arrival of yet another of Kevin's cousins. "Come on," he yelled. "They're here!"
Craig emerged from the bedroom, his duffel bag in hand. He looked slightly ill.
"Hey, you okay?" Sam asked him.
Craig merely nodded.
The door burst open, spilling in a man and a woman. They had obviously been racing. "Hey, aren't you guys ready?" she asked them.
Craig looked surprised. "Brat? How the hell did you get here?" he asked her.
"Blaine and I are on our way to Washington D.C. with a group of rowdy guys from the VA. We thought we'd add you two to the squad," she said with a smile and a wink in Sam's direction.
The address book in Kevin's desk had given him the number – listed under "Brat" – but even Sam hadn't expected her to arrive as their transportation. He grinned in spite of himself. She wasn't beautiful, or even pretty, really, but there was an honest, fun-loving look to her that made him think she was cute. With short brown hair and the same hazel eyes as her cousins, "Brat" looked anything but like her moniker.
And the man with her must be Blaine, Sam concluded. He was tall and handsome, with black hair and disconcerting pale gray eyes that watched the woman with affection. That was a good marriage, Sam thought, remembering the way his father watched his mother with a similar expression while she worked in the kitchen.
"Come on, Wheels," Blaine said, walking over to grab the bag Sam had packed and set by the door. "I already tossed the plywood down. I hope you don't mind riding in the back with the rest of the animals!" The last was yelled out the open front door, prompting a raucous display of barnyard noises from the men who were waiting.
"That's fine," Sam said, rolling to the door and getting his first look at the six vets waiting in the truck bed.
"Don't worry," Blaine said, slapping Sam on the back. "They'll wind down by the time we get to Tonopah."
"We're driving?" the physicist asked suddenly, afraid they'd never make it across country in time.
Blaine laughed. "Not hardly. I've got transpo waiting for us at Nellis." He wagged his eyebrows at the physicist.
"Yeah, what good is rank if we can't use it?" Brat asked, walking over to the cold fireplace and scooping up her journal.
"Air Force?" Sam asked. She hadn't mentioned that Blaine was still in the military in her journal.
"Army. Major Trace, currently on permanent loan to the DoD, reporting as ordered, sir!" the man said, striding out the door.
Brat joined Kevin and the reluctant Craig. "You mad at me?" she asked the latter.
Craig looked at the younger woman and shook his head. "No."
Sam's eyebrows rose.
"You never could lie, Catcher," she replied, following her husband. A small snowball flew back through the open door to bounce painlessly off the top of Sam's head.
"Brat!" he yelled after her.
She turned back, grinning.
Craig took a deep breath and stepped out the door like he was on the way to his own firing squad.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
By the time they reached Las Vegas, Sam's spirits were high. The men sharing the ride with them were a warm and caring group. They had started their own self-help group in California in 1980, turning to each other in an effort to understand and deal with a war that none of them could leave behind. While Blaine and Brat drove, Sam listened to story after story about the group itself, each member's involvement with it, and their plans to branch out, carrying their particular brand of therapy – a combination of group sharing, psychodrama and storytelling – to other vet centers that were springing up around the country.
Craig remained silent throughout the trip, but Sam was sure he was listening.
Stopping at the main gate to Nellis AFB, the MP on duty checked Blaine's ID, and then waved them through, snapping off a smart salute as they passed. The vets in the rear returned the gesture, much to the guard's amusement. Before long the entire group of ten were settled into a small cargo plane, taxiing down the long desert runway.
Watching the ground falling further behind from his window seat, Sam crossed his fingers and hoped this was the right thing for all of them.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Washington weather was cold and blustery. Debarking in the dark, Sam pulled up the collar of his jacket and waited while the wheelchair-bound men were carried down the steps and reunited with their transportation. Blaine had just collected Charlie when a large, olive-drab van rolled to a stop on the tarmac. The side panel slid open and three men exited, their faces hidden in the shadows.
"Al?" Sam breathed when he recognized the younger version of the project observer.
The man paused, studying Kevin/Sam. "Do I know you?" he asked.
"Uh–" the physicist sputtered, unsure what to say. He was saved when Lonnie appeared, grabbed up his hand, and shook it.
"Grigsby, you're lookin' a hell of a lot better than the last time I saw you. How're you doin'?"
Sam grinned in response to the man's friendly nature, but he couldn't stop himself from watching Al from the corner of his eye. He looked about as thrilled as Craig to be there. "Just fine, sir. And it's Wheels, these days."
Lonnie Martin chuckled and then introduced Al and Ironhorse. Sam shook hands with both men. Ironhorse looked exactly the same as he had when Sam had met him in the jungle. A little more filled out, but with the same bearing and manners. A slight tingle shot up Sam's hand as he took Al's, the other man noticing it as well.
"Bigger group than I was expecting," Lonnie said. "Glad the only transportation available was the monster van."
Sam paused to introduce Blaine and his cousin, Brat.
"Don't ask," she cautioned the men. She took it from there, handling the introductions of the veterans from California.
As the group began the process of loading into the waiting van, Sam took the opportunity to wait next to his friend. Al looked down at him and smiled thinly.
"So," Sam said, "what did they steal you away from?"
"Government project," was the taciturn reply. Al shuffled his feet and hunched his shoulders against the cold.
"Oh?" Sam prodded, unable to stop himself. "Sounds interesting."
That wrung a more genuine smile out of the man. "It's real theoretical stuff. Physics. Top secret."
"Sounds like you're trying to perfect a method for time travel," Sam replied casually.
Al choked and paled. He turned a startled expression on Sam.
"Just kidding," he said. "Probably can't be done."
"Oh, it'll be done all right," the future observer said with conviction. "All it takes is the right man – one who won't give up."
Sam felt his face redden and was grateful for the darkness that hid the fact. "I guess you're right," he said softly. "But I'm sure he'll need people who believe in him, too."
"Right," Al replied, also embarrassed. He reached into his pocket and fished out a cigar, but Lonnie called to him to board the rapidly filing vehicle before he could light it. He slipped it back into his pocket and gave Sam a long, appraising look before he ducked inside.
"Your turn," Ironhorse said, reaching out to scoop Sam up and maneuver him into the van.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Sam couldn't sleep. Lying in his hotel room, he listened to the sounds of Craig tossing restlessly in the other bed. Where was his Al? Would the Board let him come? Could he come? They were in Washington D.C., so why hadn't he leaped?
The memory of the younger Al's expression filled the scientist's mind. He had forgotten the intensity that burned in those eyes in 1982, forgotten the thin, sharp lines of pain and anger that had cut into the corner of Al's eyes. Not to mention the tension-hunched shoulders, the nervous fingers, and the darting gaze. But most of all, he had forgotten the bleak, haunted void that stared back at him.
A low moan severed the train of the scientist's thoughts. "Craig?" he called softly.
"Yeah?" was the mumbled reply.
Sam heard Craig roll over in the darkness to lie on his back. "I'm okay." After a long pause, he added, "What do you think about that group stuff Charlie and the others were talking about?"
"Sounds like it's helping them," Sam replied honestly. "Sounds like something I might like to try."
"Me, too," Craig whispered. "Kev, do you think I'm crazy? Really crazy, I mean."
Sam felt his chest tighten slightly. "No. I don't think you're really crazy. War affects people in different ways. What did you think of Al?"
There was a soft chuckle. "Yeah, I noticed it, too. He's got the look," Craig said, rolling back over.
"The look?" Sam asked, pushing himself up onto one elbow.
"The ghost of Christmas Past has hold of his soul," the man said softly. "Just like he's got hold of mine."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The next day Sam found himself caught up in a whirlwind of activity, people, and emotion. The newspapers and TV reports stated that tens of thousands of veterans were arriving in Washington D.C. daily. Unit reunions were rampant, and several of the therapy group members disappeared to seek out those they had known and fought beside. Staying at the huge Washington Sheraton, Sam and the others were swept along as they toured the hospitality rooms set up for most of the Army divisions deployed in Vietnam. All around him Sam witnessed tearful and joyous reunions, back slapping, hugs, tears, and shouted salutations. The energy level was high, even Craig and Al brightening when they occasionally ran into men that they hadn't seen in over ten years.
Needing to escape the crowds, Sam found himself at the National Cathedral with Brat, Al and Ironhorse. Over the course of three days the roster of Vietnam War dead was read aloud – over a thousand names an hour, according to a flyer that blew into Sam's lap as they entered. Family, friends, and buddies of the men and women lost sat in the pews, adding their prayers to the litany of names. It was a powerful setting.
Reaching out, Brat gripped Sam's hand when they read off Philip P. Grigsby. He patted her hand and squeezed, offering what comfort he could. Without thinking, he reached out and offered his free hand to Al, who hesitated a moment and then accepted, an expression of heartfelt appreciation on his face. Brat smiled down at Sam, then offered her free hand to Ironhorse, who smiled and nodded as he took it. They stood, four against the pain of loss as the echoes of the names continued to roll over them.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
That evening they met as a group, gathering on the manicured grass for something unspoken to move them closer to the structure they had all come to see. Other people came and left while they waited. Some were veterans, some family, some just individuals who wanted to understand. Words and sentences floated over the site, disconnected from the speakers.
"I've waited a long time for this," whispered one voice.
"Too damn long," was the echoing reply.
Ironhorse took the first step, and together they each approached the monument. The dying light reflected back their faces on the black surface. They broke apart, each seeking out particular names and private memories.
Sam was torn. He wanted to stay with Al, but he felt an obligation to Craig. Undecided, he chose to hang back from the rest and watch. Lonnie and Al walked along the panels until they found the name Donald Nasser. Each of the men reached out to gently touch the carved letters. Looking down at the shorter Navy officer, Lonnie smiled sadly and then slipped his arm around Al's shoulder. Sam looked away, allowing them their privacy and shared tears.
Blaine and some of the others knelt before other names, their lips moving, speaking softly to the souls of friends lost, but not forgotten. Ironhorse stood alone, reaching up to trace out a name with his fingertips, his eyes closed in prayer or deep reminiscence. Charlie sat in his chair, crying softly while another member of the group held him, whispering words of absolution and healing forgiveness.
Sam felt his own throat tighten.
"I found Philip," Brat said quietly when she stepped up to join him.
Turning slightly, Sam saw the unshed tears standing in her eyes. "Where?" he managed to ask. She pushed him over and Sam stared at the name, feeling guilty for not being the man's brother. Images of Tom flooded the physicist. If he hadn't leaped back to Vietnam Tom's name would have been here, each letter mechanically carved into the cold black stone surface. He reached out, caressing each letter in the name of Philip Grigsby as his tears fell.
"I don't know what it is," she whispered. "But you have to touch it. It's like a window, and they're all standing on the other side. When you touch it, they're touching back. I can feel them here with us when I touch Trouble's or Musser's names."
"And we're just another face, reflecting off the Wall," Sam whispered.
She nodded. "Look," she said, the word choked.
Sam turned his gaze away from the name to see Craig standing, his forehead pressed against the black surface, his eyes closed, his fingers moving mechanically back and forth over a name just above his head. The man's shoulders shook with sobs too-long held inside. Together they approached.
"Edward E. Holt," Sam read aloud.
"Musser," she added softly.
Craig allowed a sob to break past his throat, the raw sound filling the cool night air. "He wasn't supposed to die," he ground out. "It shouldn't've been him. He was a good kid."
Brat stepped up and wrapped her arms around the crying man, her fingers curling into the field jacket he was wearing. "But you can't let his death kill you, too, Catcher. Please."
The young woman's voice was pleading and Sam watched the man's knees buckle in reaction. Craig sank to the ground, his hands coming up to cover his face. Sam rolled closer, reaching out to wrap his own fingers into his "cousin's" jacket. Taking a deep breath, he forced the words past his own constricted throat. "None of them were supposed to die." Tom and Al still forefront in his mind, he continued. "They weren't supposed to die, or suffer, or be held for five years, or come home with pieces of their souls and bodies torn away, but they did."
"We survived," Ironhorse said softly, stepping up alongside Craig and helping him to his feet. "Sometimes it's harder to survive, but that choice wasn't up to us. We have to honor that, by living – really living."
Craig sucked in a deep breath and fought for control. Rolling back a little, Sam watched Ironhorse step over to join Lonnie and Al. The soon-to-be-project observer smiled shakily at Paul and Sam, then nodded. "I needed to hear that, too," he said, then reached out and pulled Paul into a heartfelt hug. Ironhorse didn't resist, and Al quickly reached out to pull Lonnie in as well. The sounds of his soft sobs joined the others.
Sam felt a tingle of joy explode in his heart. This was exactly what Al needed. He could see that part of the burden the man had been carrying was lifted, stripped away by the tears. Now, if he could just make sure Craig was okay…
Sam reached out and took Craig's hand. "You have us," he said. "Family. We'll be here for you. Always. If not Musser, me. If not me, Brat. The family doesn't die."
"And we love you," she added in a whisper. "Please, Craig, let Musser go. He wouldn't want this. And I don't want to lose another brother."
Craig's fragile composure broke. Tears of anguish and pain fell, purging the man, only to be slowly replaced by tears of healing and recovery. It would be a long road, but he had taken his first tentative steps.
The members of the vet group crowded in, touching and holding the man, offering their support. Brat and Sam moved away, giving the veterans their space to bond and heal.
Blaine stepped up to hold the young woman and she pressed her face against his shoulder, crying her own tears while he held her in the enfolding darkness.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
November 13th broke cold and windy, but the raw conditions could not dampen the spirits of the men and women who had converged on the Nation's capital. Fifteen thousand who had served, wearing everything from tiger stripes to business suits, marched proudly down Constitution Avenue on their way to the Memorial. There were no bands accompanying them on the trek, nothing but the steady footfall of those who had served, and who were now completing their final mission: they had finally come to pay respects to their dead.
At the Memorial, Sam felt the press of a quarter-million people as they listened to various speakers and the Marine band. Words from one man who took a turn at the podium echoed across the landscape: "With this long overdue week of activities, with the parade today and especially with this dedication, America is saying, 'Welcome Home!' No one can doubt that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial will be an eternal touchstone for the conscience of this nation…"
A stiff breeze carried away the rest of his words, but Sam wasn't really listening. He was watching, witnessing the healing of heart and soul, including those that belonged to a man he deeply cared for. When the official ceremony was over, the group approached the black monument for a second time. There were fewer tears this time, and more smiles and fond remembrances. Sam planted the two small American flags Brat had gotten for him for the two family members he could have lost – Tom and Al – and for the two that the young woman had lost.
Then, rolling back to give others an opportunity, he drew in a deep breath and held it a moment before letting it go. He felt good. A familiar tingle along the back of his neck caused the physicist to turn in his chair. "Al," he said, his eyes filling with tears for no good reason.
"You did it, Sam," the observer said, his voice rough, his own eyes brighter than usual. "Charlie moves to Reno and starts up a group at the vet center there. Craig and Kevin are the first two who sign up. He's going to make it."
"She's fine. She loses her husband in 1986, but she goes on to find love again."
Sam felt a stab of pain, and looking at the young woman and Blaine he couldn't fight back the feeling of unfairness that welled up in him.
"Don't worry, Sam, that one's in His hands," Al said, his misty eyes scanning the crowds.
"I guess so," the blond said. "Al?"
"Yeah?" the observer replied, trying to nonchalantly wipe his eyes.
"When I get home, let's come back here… you and me."
The startled expression on the older man's face was quickly replaced by deep affection. "I'd like that, Sam."
The physicist nodded, lifting his hand until it was in front of Al. "Brat, what's her real name?"
"Lynn," Al supplied.
"She said that when you touch the Wall, the ghosts of the dead are on the other side, touching back."
Al's expression grew thoughtful and he glanced at the structure and then, without looking, raised his hand until it mirrored Sam's. Looking back at the physicist, he nodded. "Maybe they do, Sam. Maybe they do."
"Do you want to?" Sam asked, nodding at the Memorial.
Al started at the black wall for a long moment, and then shook his head. "I think I've started to make my peace with it… with Don and his death. I still miss him. I guess I always will."
Sam reached out, but let his hand drop back by his side, wishing he could give the man a hug. He looked like he needed one. But he also looked stronger than Sam remembered.
The undeniable tug of his next leap rumbled though Sam, the blue-white light growing nearly bright enough to blind him. And leaping, he felt the soft brush of fingertips passing over his own…
 Author's Note: Sam and Al, Lonnie and Ironhorse are fiction characters. The rest of the men in this story are real. They were my cousins, my husband, and my friends. The journal entries are mine. Musser and Trouble died in Vietnam. Eight other cousins made it back, although they suffered scars from that war. Of the ten who originally left for Vietnam, only one now survives – Mark, on whom Kevin is based. And Blaine died, too, struck by a drunk driver, another Vietnam vet who had gone out that night to kill himself. Charlie and the other vets are men I met and worked with at various Vet Centers. They were great teachers. Thanks to all of you guys!