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Waiting for the Summer Rain

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November 18, 1984

 

Leaping isn't exactly the most pleasurable experience I've ever known. I don't think anyone could develop a taste for it. Most of the time I jump into my new persona, with all its upcoming hazards and challenges, feeling like I'd just come off a week-long binge sleeping rough in the gutter.

And here it comes again: that familiar rush of blackness; nauseating vertigo as I feel myself dragged, relentlessly, spiralling upward, then flung abruptly and dizzily down again; a maddening itch of white noise just at the topmost range of my otic nerves ...

And I open my eyes to find myself feeling like –

No, strike 'feeling like'. This time round, I am sleeping in the gutter.

Oh, boy ...

***

First rule of Quantum Leaping: never ask stupid questions. And the number one stupid question in this situation would be, What am I doing sleeping in the gutter? I mean, it's not something you'd do by choice, right? So I didn't say it. I just moaned.

Ah, but I moaned with feeling.

"Uncle Jesse?"

A high, adolescent voice, trying hard to sound laid-back and cool, but not quite able to mask a tremor of uncertainty; small hands gripping my shoulders just a little too tight and shaking me just a little too hard. I made the obvious connection between 'Uncle Jesse' and myself and rolled cautiously over and up into a sitting position to get a good look at my new-found nephew ...

Or possibly niece. At a first glance I couldn't be absolutely sure. Vivid red hair cropped, at a guess with blunt nail scissors, into an uncompromising stubble all over; face pale, tired, dirt-smudged and anxious; black 501's, terminally ripped at the knees, threadbare baseball boots, a biker jacket that looked like the original biker was twice the size of the current wearer and about five years down the road messily dead ... no clues there, either to gender or era.

On closer observation, some of the black marks around the eyes might have been old mascara streaks, not just dirt and fatigue. I hazarded a guess at female. Female, and maybe fourteen years old. Tops.

So, what was I doing in the gutter with an underdeveloped fourteen-year-old girl?

I really didn't want to think too hard about that one. Unfortunately, I probably didn't have much choice. If I was supposed to set something right – and why else would I have Leaped in here? – this looked like the obvious place to make a start.

"Uncle Jesse?" The kid – girl, whatever – was still staring at me, eyes big and scared in the small, pinched face, her fingers starting to bite painfully into my shoulders. I managed a weak smile, brought up my hands to rub my eyes. Seeing things more clearly didn't improve them any.

"Yeah, I'm here. What is it?"

She sat back on her heels and let her hands drop, wrapping her arms around her body. It was cold, I was just starting to notice: not yet winter, fortunately for me – for both of us – but there was a chill in the air that indicated that fall was pretty well advanced.

"Jeez, Uncle Jesse – !" She obviously couldn't decide whether to laugh, cry or yell; her voice was an uncertain mix of all three, and the look on her face matched it. Finally she sighed, shook her head, and settled on a resigned, tolerant smile. "Oh, Uncle Jesse – man, you are just such a burnout, you know?" She shifted nearer, reached her arms around me and hugged me. "You planning to get on your feet any time today, or what're you gonna do? Wait for the world to get up and come to you?"

Obediently I started to struggle upright. "Getting on my feet – right now, ma'am." She came up along with me, supporting me with her shoulder like it was something she was used to. Which it probably was. I had to admit, I was glad of the support; I felt lousy – weak, shaky and nauseous. I hoped I wasn't starting to sicken for something. Now, there was an interesting thought: what would happen if I got sick in mid-Leap? Maybe I was about to find out.

"You okay?" She didn't wait for an answer, which was just as well, since the only reasonable one was 'no'. "Uncle Jesse, we have got to eat today, I don't care how we do it. The rats 'round here are starting to look awful good, you know what I mean?"

No, thank god, I didn't know, but I had a nasty premonition that I might be going to find out. Now that I had my face out of the dirt, I was starting to take a look around and take stock of the situation I'd landed in. What I could see was pretty grim. We were in a back alley ... somewhere, anywhere, no clues that I could see in the grey morning light. The tenements on either side were old, run down: walls cracked, windows boarded over broken glass, stairwells littered with garbage. This property is condemned, I thought; tearing it down would be the kindest thing anyone could do for it. It stank, too, of rotten food, human waste, sewage, car fumes. As I watched, something large and brown whisked out of sight less than a yard away, its long pink naked tail visible for several seconds after the rest of it had vanished. Rattus Norvegicus, I thought absently; he'd looked healthier than I felt. Ah, home, sweet home. I took it that this was my home; I/Jesse had spent the night sleeping in a doorway here, that much was for sure. Along with whatever-her-name-was, my niece.

God, my very own niece, and I didn't even know her name ...

"CeCe." Al's voice came disconcertingly from someplace behind me. I glanced reflexively over my shoulder. Yes, there he was. From my angle of vision, he was standing in the doorway. I mean, literally; I could see the doorhandle superimposed on his belt buckle (a profoundly tacky design of the old space shuttle Atlantis in wrought brass, for all you fashion victims out there). It would have been a pretty horrific sight even if I'd been feeling at my best. The turquoise shot silk shirt he was sporting didn't improve matters any, either.

"CeCe?" I repeated – which is always the safest formula in an unknown situation, or so I've discovered, although it does make for some monotonous and cyclical conversations. The girl said, "Yes?" so I took it that, back where I came from, Ziggy must have finished analysing the background story on the real Uncle Jesse, and Al was ready to fill me in on the details.

I gestured vaguely toward the far end of the alley, hoping to indicate pressing personal need. "Would you excuse me a moment, honey?" 'Honey' seemed neutral enough, if mildly sexist; another safe bet.

She turned her face up to mine and frowned a little, doubtfully. "Sure you can manage on your own?"

I was absolutely not going to think about the implications of that one. "Quite sure," I said hastily, and moved away, Al gliding up alongside me. I glanced at him sidelong.

"What, no cracks about jailbait?"

The look on his face indicted me with every form of low behaviour known, and several new ones into the bargain. "Bad taste, Sam," he reproached me.

"Well, you should know, you're the expert." He assumed an appropriately wounded expression, so I changed the subject in a hurry. "CeCe what? CeCe who?"

"The second 'C' stands for Connors," Al told me. "The first is for Charlene – "

I grimaced involuntarily. Poor kid. One of the most truly horrible names ever inflicted on a woman. You heard it and instantly, however unfairly, thought 'bimbo'. No wonder she didn't use it. "Which explains the CeCe. Yeah, I can understand that."

Al's injured look reappeared. "Hey, talk about your unreasonable prejudice! I once knew a Charlene who – "

I cut across whatever he might have been going to say; I suspected I wouldn't want to know. "Yeah, I just bet you did."

" – was a very nice girl," he insisted. "It's a perfectly good name, nothing wrong with it at all." A faraway look came into his eyes. "Now, Candi, say ... or Sunny ... or Lori ..."

"CeCe," I reminded him. "Save the warped fantasies, they'll keep. CeCe is – ?" He started to call up the appropriate data on his handlink to Ziggy, but I waved it impatiently away. "No, I already know. CeCe is a fourteen-year-old runaway, right?"

He kicked morosely at a pebble, snarling at it when his holographic foot naturally failed to connect. "Fifteen," he corrected.

"Fifteen?" Even more underdeveloped than I'd thought, then. "And I'm supposed to be her loving Uncle Jesse. Right?"

"Her mother's half-brother." He went back to his datalink. "Her parents split up seven years back – "

"In?" I prompted.

"Greenwater, New Jersey." I gave him a pointed look. "Oh! Sorry, Sam. In 1977."

"So it's 1984," I said, aloud but to myself. What had happened in 1984? Damned if I knew. A presidential race, presumably, an Olympics; I had a suspicion that one or the other had been significant in some way, but I couldn't recall how or why. And the space shuttle; hadn't the crew broken some kind of new ground, if you could break ground in space, that year? I gave up the battle, and fell back on the obvious. "George Orwell." Erratic to the bitter end, my memory promptly triggered a random connection. "Down and Out in Paris and London."

Al looked at me as though ... yeah, okay, as though I'd lost my mind. Forget I said that. "Sorry, Sam, neither. This is New York – wake up and smell the garbage."

"I did," I pointed out. "I can. Be grateful you can't. Besides," I added, "you love New York." I don't know why I should remember that. Maybe only because, in my present circumstances, it seemed so improbable.

"Yeah, well, only within reason," he countered, and waved the handlink at me again. "You want to hear what Ziggy has to tell you, or are you planning to wing it on this one?"

Not that Ziggy was always as helpful as he ought to have been, considering what he'd cost to build and program, to say nothing of run; on the other hand, the idea of trying to get by on no information at all was a daunting one. I apologised nicely and gestured to Al to go on.

I'd found an unboarded window with a fragment of glass remaining in its frame, and stopped to stare at my – Jesse's – reflection. CeCe had been right: burnout was the word. He might have been about my own height and weight originally, maybe around my own age, too; as I saw him now, gaunt, stooped and haggard, he could have been anything between thirty and sixty. His hair was black, grey-streaked, long and matted, with a beard to match (I could feel it itching; I knew it was only psychological, but it was bugging the hell out of me), skin a sallow olive under the dirt. For the rest, torn denims, broken-down desert boots, an overcoat that looked as though it had started life as a horse blanket. The horse, like CeCe's biker, had probably been dogmeat years ago. CeCe and I – he – would have made a perfect couple, but for that twenty-some years' age difference.

But for the fact that this situation was a long, long way from being perfect.

Al was still talking. "Jesse ... Byrd. Known to his army buddies as Blue, for some reason ... oh, Blue Byrd – that's pretty good, huh, Sam?"

Oh, please. Al's sense of humour does have a tendency to verge on the puerile.

"Not even the first time," I said flatly.

"Aged thirty five – no wife – no kids – "

"Of his own," I put in.

" – of his own, right. Section eighted in 1971 ... a registered heroin user – "

I felt in the coat pocket, came up with an empty phial. Methadone, I assumed. No wonder I felt so bad. "Oh, that's really great, Al!"

"Well, according to this, he's pretty much dried out," Al offered, by way of consolation, I suppose. "And, let me see – and no fixed place of abode." He looked up at me. "Not since the last time he walked out of his VA unit and out of the records. That was eight months ago."

I nodded toward the datalink. "Looks like he's back in the records now."

Al's face had grown serious. Deadly serious.

"Yeah. Once the coroner signs that little piece of paper with your name on it, you're in the records for ever and ever more, amen."

I felt my stomach lurch. "Jesse's dead? I mean – he's going to die?"

Al nodded, returning to the stream of information Ziggy was feeding him.

"OD?"

"No."

"No?"

"No," Al confirmed. "He's going to be gunned down in a driveby killing, three days from now."

I spun around to face him, almost reached to grab his forearms – but my hands would have just gone straight through, and I hate it when that happens. "And this is what I'm here to stop? I have to keep him alive?"

Al was silent for a moment, watching me, his eyes reading my face. I wondered what he saw there. Finally, slowly, he shook his head. "No, Sam. That's not the reason you're here. Not according to Ziggy. He wouldn't even bother to quote the probabilities."

"But – " My mind was racing, veering from one half-formed thought to the next. "Al, with Jesse dead – what happens to – who's going to look out for CeCe?"

He shook his head again; his eyes were dark, hollowed and sad. "I can't answer that."

Ziggy and his damned rules about what I was permitted to know and what I wasn't! When did I start to let a computer run my life?

"Al – !" I began hotly, my voice rising. He shouted me down.

"I said, can't, Sam. She's with Jesse when he's shot, she's right there in the hospital with him up till the moment he dies – then nothing. Zero. Zip. She's gone, she vanishes." His hand chopped downward in a savage, final gesture. "End of story."

End of story? I didn't think so. Not if I could help it. And if I couldn't help it, what would be the point of my being here?

"No," I said – and I said it with all the confidence I could muster. "Not this time."

***

Perspective is everything. Once upon a time I might have found the New York subculture colourful, exciting, vibrant. Once. Back when I had money in my pockets. From my current point of view, someplace not too very far from rock bottom, I could see without illusion, and all I saw was squalor.

We were out of the alley and, although I still hadn't completely got my bearings, heading, as far as I could tell, uptown. I didn't think I'd ever spent much time in New York, although, of course, I couldn't be sure. Certainly nothing rang any bells, so if I had, I wasn't benefiting from the experience. CeCe had eventually come looking for me – "Jeez, Uncle Jesse, did you forget what you came for?" – and dragged me off people-ward – specifically, since we were already elbowing our way through wall-to-wall people, tourist-ward. Money- and guilt-ward. She'd retrieved our belongings as we passed our very own doorway – a couple of worn duffels and, surprise, a battered acoustic guitar. Of course, Jesse would play guitar. He could strum three chords, I bet: C, F and G7. Maybe D7. At least that was something I'd learned from past experience I could do if I had to: play guitar, sing. Likewise piano, but we didn't happen to be toting one along with us ...

I stopped in my tracks, bemused. I knew my mind wasn't firing on all cylinders, hadn't been since I started Leaping (Al feeds me some terrific hints about how great it'd been before all this; makes me start wishing I could know me better), but mostly it was at least lucid. Well ... okay, at any rate reasonably so. Since I'd been Jesse, though, I'd noted ... I don't know. Kind of fuzzy edges to everything, connections that didn't quite join up, long pauses between one thought and the next ...

Jesse was AWOL from a VA unit, Al had said – a psychiatric unit, he'd implied – and, if that wasn't enough, an addict too. Did those factors added together mean that Jesse ... that, in the same way that he wasn't quite here in the usual run of things, now he wasn't quite – gone? That some part of his identity lingered on, taking up space in my mind (okay, so there was room for it), colouring my judgements, movements, actions?

A few steps ahead of me, CeCe swung around, came back to my side and took a firm grasp of my arm.

"Uncle Jesse, will you please quit doing that? One day I'm gonna lose you, and then what'll you do?"

She said it lightly, kidding me – him – but it sent a chill of premonition running through me: that day was coming up faster than she could suspect – and then what was she going to do? It took me a moment to think of something to say – something in character, something that wouldn't frighten her into thinking her Uncle Jesse had finally lost his mind, what mind he had remaining.

"I'll be fine, honey," I got out at last. "Don't worry about me – worry about yourself." I tried for a smile, not too successfully. "That's what I do."

Her answering smile was bright with unalloyed affection. "Do you, Uncle Jesse?" She slid her arms around my waist, pressed close to me, her head resting against my chest as we walked. "That's pretty cool, seeing you're the acid casualty round here, not me."

Acid casualty? That didn't tie up with what Al had told me. Still, it probably wasn't significant. I let it pass. Maybe Jesse'd just tried every mind-altering substance he could lay his hands on.

"CeCe." We were passing through one of those '80's-trendy piazzas, with cute little bench seats and a fountain and hanging baskets and hardly any graffiti. I steered her over to a convenient bench, sat down and pulled her to sit beside me, draping a seemingly-casual arm around her shoulders. How would Jesse handle this? I wondered. The most likely answer was, he wouldn't. I didn't doubt that he cared about her, but he was probably too bombed out to see more than one step ahead at a time – if even as far as that. Maybe that was my mission: someone had decreed that it was up to me to try and steer CeCe away from a course that could only end in tragedy. Maybe I was supposed to get her away from Jesse, whatever his hold was over her, and persuade her to go back home. She must have a home, other than a back alley; Al had said her parents were separated, but nothing to indicate that they were not still alive.

I made myself look closely at her: really look. Under the dirt and the hollows left by poverty and hunger, you could see that she'd been a pretty child, with the promise of developing into an attractive woman, given a few more years. Her face had vitality and intelligence, too; in spite of being saddled with a name like Charlene, she was no way going to grow up to be a bimbo. More to the point, I had already seen that she was capable of caring and loyalty, at least toward those she loved. All that potential to go to waste?

"CeCe – " I tried to pitch my voice to project sincerity and concern without making it sound as though I were trying to preach. Kids hate being preached at. At least, I knew I had. "Have you ever thought about what we're doing here? Really thought? You're fifteen – what kind of a life is this? Sleeping in alleys – days we don't eat – living on the edge – how long can it go on?"

Almost as soon as I'd begun to speak, her shoulders started to stiffen under my touch. I drew back, trying to look into her eyes; she turned her face away, avoiding my gaze, her mouth set. Nonetheless, I had to keep pushing it. "Winter's coming. You think it's been hard so far – well, it's only going to get harder. I can't go on much longer, CeCe. Be honest – can you?"

No response. I put my free hand under her chin, forced her to look at me. "CeCe – you don't have to live this way. You're young, smart, pretty, you've got your life ahead of you, everything in the world going for you – so why – ?" My voice was starting to crack; I had to stop, fight to control my frustration. I hate to resort to clichés, but talk about brick walls ... a brick wall would have been a breeze compared to this.

She had closed her eyes tightly, and turned away from me again. "You know why," she whispered at last, so low that I could barely hear her.

"Do I?" Of course I did – or rather, Jesse did. He must do. No matter how wasted he was, he'd have to be crazy to run off with a juvenile and live on the streets unless he had a real good reason, or thought he had one. On the other hand, we'd already established (hadn't we?) that he was crazy – so where did that leave us? "Pretend that I don't," I suggested, rather desperately. "Pretend I've forgotten. Tell me over again. Maybe this time we'll be able to see some way out."

That was a bad mistake. She swore at me, shook my arm violently off her shoulders, jumped up and stormed away. I half-started up after her, but thought again, and forced myself to stay where I was. She needed some space. I hated to let her out of my sight, but I reasoned that if she cared about Jesse half as much as she'd implied, she'd be back. Maybe she'd have changed her mind in the meantime.

Yeah, and maybe the sky would fall on all our heads and leave us with nothing more to worry about.

I sighed out loud. "Boy, I sure screwed that up." If that was my best shot, this Leap was foredoomed to failure.

So, I'd just have to do better. Right?

"There's noplace she can go, Sam," Al told me. He was sitting on the bench (or something very like it back in the Imaging Chamber) beside me.

I didn't turn to look at him, only slumped forward to stare at the stones beneath my feet. No-one would take time out for more than a moment to stare at a derelict sitting, muttering to himself; they saw the same thing every day. "Her parents – ?"

"Good ol' Chuck and Maggie?" His voice was bitter, serious as I'd seldom heard it. "Her mother's remarried – the new husband has his own commercial air freight business – relocated to Nevada, made it clear she wants no part of the kid. Her life's going ahead just fine. Her father ..." He paused, as if reluctant to go on, took in a deep breath before he continued, "He's a total screw-up – crazier than Jesse, and about as far in the opposite direction as you want to get. Like, if Jesse were Mahatma Gandhi – which, I admit, he isn't – Chuck would be your friend and mine, Charlie Manson."

Realisation dawned, cold and still and lethal. "Oh, Jesus," I breathed. "He abused her?"

"We pulled his war record." Al, who's seen at first hand every atrocity imaginable, and many that aren't, looked sick. "It wasn't nice reading. He had a bad rep locally even before that, but the war gave him all the excuses he needed. His ex-wife cited cruelty in the divorce action. Physical violence."

"And she got out, but she left her daughter behind?" My hands were clenched so tightly it hurt. What kind of woman – ? No, that wasn't fair; there was no point in wasting my anger in that direction. I didn't know what she'd been through, although I thought I had some idea: my own sister had been a victim of violence in her first marriage. By the time she'd finally got away, she'd practically been a basket case, almost incapable of making a decision, her self-esteem in tatters. If CeCe's mother had had it as bad, then how could I presume to judge her? "Which means her father's been abusing her for seven years, and no-one noticed anything, no-one did anything – ?"

"You know how people are, Sam," Al offered, almost apologetically. Maybe he was afraid that I might turn around and start laying into him. He was the closest target I had, after all. "They see just what they want to see – don't see what they don't. He's not the sort of guy who has a lot of friends, not many people ever get a look behind his doors."

Well, okay. But – "Al, she must have gone to school? Didn't any of her friends, any of her teachers, notice anything?"

He shrugged. "If they did, they didn't follow through. And up to the start of this year she was a model student – seems she was in line for some sort of scholarship – "

"A way out," I guessed. "She didn't get it?"

"She got it," he said. "Her father wrote to the school and turned it down. He was quite noble about it – said that since he was well able to provide for his daughter's education, he thought the prize should go to someone in genuine need." He looked unhappy. "Right after that, it looks like she just gave up – started skipping classes, hanging with the local punkers ... kind of like a protest, I guess."

"Or a cry for help. Did anyone listen?"

"She saw a student counsellor once." He was holding Ziggy's datalink loosely between the palms of his hands. He brought it up, flipped a toggle, turned the face to show me, forgetting that it meant nothing to me now. "It's all on record, for what it's worth. She – the counsellor – called Connors in for an interview. Talk things out, work through your conflicts, please try to understand that no-one's to blame," he mimicked savagely. "Big surprise. He never showed, and the kid ran away the next day." He closed the link, let it fall again. "We know Jesse got a phone call at the VA the same day. You don't need six doctorates to figure out the rest."

I was never sure whether to believe Al about the six doctorates. It seemed to me that if I'd done all the things he'd said I had, I wouldn't have had much time left over to have a life. Not the issue at hand, I was drifting again. Which made me wonder ...

"Back in the Waiting Room," I asked, "how's Jesse taking this?"

Al shrugged. "Okay," he said offhandedly. "As okay as most of them get. Why?"

I thought he sounded evasive. Maybe I was just getting paranoid. "No special reason. He seems like a nice guy, for a junkie. I just thought, he must be worried – about CeCe, I mean. The way she obviously cares for him, he wouldn't be human if he wasn't."

"He is," Al admitted. "That's all he talks about. We finally had to tell him the truth – about where he was, what was happening, why; it was the only way we could calm him down, short of knocking him out cold. And since he doesn't have much time left, we figured sedating him might be classified as cruel and unusual."

I looked up, startled; this was hardly procedure, as I'd come to understand it. I wondered who Al had had to con, or bribe, or blackmail, to get away with it. "He knows he's going to die?"

"He knows." Al was broodingly silent a moment, then burst out, "And you know what he said, Sam? He said, 'Thank god – I've been waiting for that for the last thirteen years'. Waiting to die, Sam!"

I didn't answer for a while; I just sat there, turning words over and around in my head. I knew what I wanted to say, sort of, but I didn't know how to explain it – and I didn't know if I had the right; least of all to Al, of all people. "Maybe," I finally, very cautiously, suggested, "maybe he lost something in the war, Al." Like his soul; but that I just couldn't say.

And maybe this was his way toward his own personal redemption: getting his sister's child away from a life of hell, caring for her to the best of his abilities, giving her the love that no-one else cared to own to her. Maybe this one precious life saved was his reparation for other lives, too many other lives lost. Only he wasn't quite strong enough to carry it through; he failed and lost everything after all. All for nothing.

"Not for nothing," I promised him silently; but found that, after all, I had spoken it out loud, like a prayer.

"Uncle Jesse?"

Al had risen and was standing, his arms folded, at the end of the bench, watching me soberly. CeCe had slipped silently back to my side. She reached for my hands, held them, tracing the palms gently with her thumbs. I wondered, did Jesse's lifeline break suddenly halfway? And CeCe's? Where did hers begin? How could I even start to make amends for what her father had done to her?

"Uncle Jesse ..." Her voice was hesitant, unsteady. "I'm sorry, really I am. But you know I can't talk about it. It's over, it never happened, gone, finito, dead. Let it lie in peace." She flashed a sudden grin, squeezed my hands tight and let them drop, dug into her inside jacket pocket, and came up with a handful of loose change. "Look." She counted it out into my hand. "While you've been sitting here goofing off, I've been working. We can have breakfast."

Only just, I reckoned; there were only a few dollars there, but then again, I had no recollection of what prices had been, back in 1984. I forced a smile that I hoped would not disappoint her. "That's just great, honey. You did good." Did what good? I didn't want to ask. I just hoped it was nothing too illegal.

She looked embarrassed but relieved, shrugging a little as she retrieved the money and put it away again. "I know you told me never to try to panhandle without you to back me up and look mean and menacing if you had to, but what the hell, it worked, didn't it?" She grabbed my hand again and dragged me to my feet. "What're you waiting for, aren't you hungry?"

I was starving. I said so.

She laughed. It was like a flame being kindled within her; it transformed the awkward, adolescent lines of her face, out of recognition, beyond belief. In that instant I saw her as Jesse saw her: not as a child. He loved her – really loved her – and the conflict between what he knew was right and what he felt in spite of himself was tearing him apart. Tearing me apart, if I let him into my mind ...

The revelation knocked me spinning. I tore my hands free without thinking, damned myself silently as I saw the light in her eyes fade and die. I wasn't Jesse; I could deal with this. And I could sure as hell do it without hurting the kid. There had been enough done of that.

"Your hands are cold, honey," I said lamely, and covered them with my own again. "Is that better?"

She looked solemnly up at me and ventured a wary nod. "Yes. Thank you, Uncle Jesse."

"Good." I smiled. "Then let's go eat."

***

CeCe's expertise converted her cash into enough food (overripe fruit and yesterday's bread sold off cheaply, and an extravagant chilli dog for me, since she insisted I needed the protein) to keep the two of us on our feet for a little while longer. She was probably right about the protein; at any rate, I found myself taking hold and starting to think a little more clearly. It concerned me that Jesse's physical debilities were affecting me so much. I've never been absolutely certain what part of me it is that Leaps – mind, body, spirit, part or all of each or any; there's evidence for all three. Conflicting evidence, it goes without saying. If I had my memory back in one piece again, six doctorates, IQ running into phone numbers and all the rest of it, I'd know – well, I assume I'd know. Until that happy day, I have to do the best with such limited data as I have and ignore the minor problem that none of it makes a lick of sense. Like the fact that I could feel Jesse's hunger, when I remembered clearly that my Leap into him had caught me not long after my previous persona had finished eating breakfast; and the fact that I kept sensing, briefly, his scrambled brain patterns superimposed on my own – which, admittedly, were equally scrambled. I supposed I should be grateful that at least I wasn't getting his withdrawal symptoms, which must be due about now. It all made me wonder just what was going to happen to me, spelt ME in big capital letters, when Jesse died, as Al told me he was bound to, in only a couple of days. What if I didn't Leap before then? It was a disturbing thought, and I kept it burning at the back of my mind. The rest of my mind, the main part, was busily occupied in wondering what was going to happen to CeCe – and how to make sure it wasn't whatever had happened the first time around.

We'd wandered as far as the north edge of Central Park, a name even I knew, found ourselves a relatively quiet place to sit in the pale afternoon sun and watch the world as it passed us by. I thought CeCe was asleep, lying curled up on the grass, her head pillowed on her arms. I sat and looked at her, and ticked off the options: mother? No. Father? No way in hell. Could I get her taken into care, then, maybe? I hadn't the faintest idea what the proper procedure was; Al would be able to tell me, no doubt, but ... the thought of Al brought to mind some of the horror stories he had to tell about a childhood spent between an orphanage and a series of inadequate foster homes. No; that wasn't what I wanted for CeCe, wouldn't do for my little girl ...

Shit, that was not me thinking! That was Jesse, pure and clear, and – I thought determinedly – he had no business in my mind.

And you got no business in my body, he rejoined at once, and I sensed him trying to drive me out – but that was more than he had the strength to do; I held on tightly, withstanding his efforts, until, as suddenly as it had appeared, his presence was gone.

Nothing quite like this had ever happened to me before, in all the time I've been Leaping, and it had left me shaken. It's bad enough to find myself inhabiting another person's space – I don't let myself think too deeply about what kind of a state they're left in after I Leap out – without finding that person in there with me. I let my head fall back, and sighed heavily. Too many internal battles like that, most certainly I did not need.

I'd woken CeCe. She uncurled, yawned, stretched, and then glowered at me.

"Okay, okay, I can take a hint. We need to practise, you don't have to tell me." She reached over me and picked up Jesse's guitar, put it into my hands. I took it out of its case and started getting it in tune.

I had no idea what songs Jesse knew, not even what kind of music he played. Could he manage more than three chords? Damn, I should have hung on to him while I'd had him. Where was he now, when I really needed him? "Any requests?" I asked CeCe, hoping for clues.

She was pulling lyric sheets out of her duffel bag, frowning over the scrawled writing. Jesse, stoned, I suspected. "Oh – " She glanced up, waved a hand absently. "I don't know. Something REMish, maybe ... you know I'm in love with Michael Stipe." She drew the word 'love' out with great and deliberate exaggeration, managing to spread it over three syllables: luuurrvvv ... I had no idea who this Michael Stipe was, but I felt a minor twinge of jealousy toward the guy just the same. Oh – but wait –

"REM, yeah, okay," I said. "I guess I can fake it through Losing My Religion – only I don't have a mandolin pick ..." She was looking at me in complete and utter incomprehension, I belatedly realised.

"Losing your what?" she demanded.

"Mind," I said hastily, and not altogether untruthfully. "Um, I'll just play ... whatever comes ..."

My fingers managed to make sense of a few chords at random; they sparked something.

"This is the end ..."

I was half-singing, part whispering, part wondering where this had come from, who I was right at this precise instant in time; part lost –

Part found. Not caring. It was right.

"Beautiful friend –
Can you picture what will be
So limitless and free?
Desperately in need of some stranger's hand
In a desperate land ...?"

CeCe rolled her eyes. "The Doors. This I need. Uncle Jesse, you are the most incredible, hopeless, unregenerate old hippie – !"

Kids. Don't you love them?

"The Doors were a seminal influence on modern rock music," I told her firmly. "It says so in all the textbooks. Don't knock them."

"Does 'seminal' mean what it sounds like?" she asked cautiously.

"I expect so."

"Bleh!" She added, rather wistfully, "None of my textbooks ever mentioned rock music."

I thought I saw an opening. "Yeah? When was the last time you saw a textbook, anyway?"

I knew before the words were out of my mouth that I'd blown it again, that it was the wrong thing to say. She was going to snap.

She did.

"Jesus H Christ, Uncle Jesse, get off of my case, will you?! You know damn well ..." She stopped, caught her breath on what had almost been a sob. Her face worked furiously for a moment; finally, more calmly – a little more calmly, but still angrily – she went on, "What do you want me to do? I couldn't have worked any harder if I'd killed myself to do it. I made top grades, I did everything right, played by all the rules – I thought I could make them make him send me away to school, then I could get away to college, finally just get away, get away and never come back – but he wouldn't let me, wouldn't let me go – " She pressed her hands against her mouth as though to stifle a scream; when she drew them away again, her lips were white and bloodless. "I got away," she whispered. "You helped me get away, Jesse. We did it, we beat him. I got away, and I'm never going back. No way. Not ever."

She was shaking. So was I. I took her in my arms, helpless to do anything else, or to say anything more than, "I'm sorry. So sorry, CeCe ..." She'd never know how true that was. Why couldn't I have Leaped in seven years earlier, persuaded her mother to take CeCe with her when she ran, prevented all this pain? If there was a reason, it had better be a good one; but I couldn't think what it might be.

"Sam." Al spoke quietly by my ear. I don't know why quietly, CeCe couldn't hear him. Perhaps I should give him more credit for sensitivity than I do. No, I know I should. "Sam, Ziggy just pulled some more details on Charles Connors."

Mr Nice Guy? I gave him a yes-go-on kind of nod above CeCe's head.

"He was diagnosed a couple of months back as having pancreatic cancer."

Oh god, no ...

"He's dying, Sam," Al confirmed.

Her father too? God, I thought wildly, this family has no luck at all. Not that Jesse Byrd and Charles Connors were 'family', exactly; they had only one link in common.

"If she doesn't go back there within the next couple of days, she'll never be able to go back again," Al murmured. "Never get a chance to mend those walls ..."

Yeah, those walls – what about them? Could they be mended? Was it worthwhile even to try? I had my doubts, but what did I know? Worth it or not, we had to make the effort. If we didn't, if we didn't even try, what hope could there be? I had to try to make CeCe face her past, accept it and let it go. Then maybe she'd have a chance for some kind of future.

Could this be what I had been sent here to do?

And Jesse? If he was in Greenwater the day after tomorrow, instead of – wherever he was supposed to be – would that be enough to save his life, too?

One problem at a time. I shook myself back to the present, and turned to CeCe again, holding her away from me, holding her eyes with my own. "I'm sorry," I repeated. "But maybe you should. Go back, I mean."

She jerked backward, flinching as if I'd hit her, flinging up an arm as though to protect her face from an anticipated or remembered blow. "No!"

The reflex, the sheer instinct of the gesture, brought home to me the reality of what her life had been; it gave me a twisted, sick feeling in my gut. If I'd ever felt any shred of sympathy for Connors, it was lost without trace in that moment. There was only one victim here.

I tried to reassure her. "We'll go together."

She shook her head vehemently, scrambling backward, getting to her feet, getting ready to run. "I won't go. You can't make me, Uncle Jesse. Please don't."

"CeCe." I stumbled up after her, reached for her, closing my hands around her upper arms. "I know what I'm asking you to do. I know it's a lot. But I'll be with you. He won't touch you. I won't let him hurt you – I swear to that." I took a deep breath and told her the truth. "Your father's dying, CeCe. You have to face him now. It's the only chance you'll ever have again."

Her eyes were wide. "Dying?" And suspicious. "How do you know?"

I tapped the side of my head solemnly. "Call it a message from a higher plane," I told her.

"That's me, huh?" Al observed. He sounded quite pleased about it. "Well, you've called me a lot of worse things in your time, Sam." I heard the door to the Imaging Chamber open and close as he left us alone.

CeCe's hostility was beginning to fade. She trusted me, I could see – trusted Jesse. After all, he'd never let her down – had he? In all of her life, he was the only one who'd been there for her when she had needed someone. I wasn't about to change that.

"You'll be with me?" she asked in a small voice.

I nodded. "Uh-huh."

"And you won't let him touch me?"

Her eyes locked on mine, huge and suppliant. What could I say?

"I swear," I said again.

She sighed, looked away, spread out her hands in acceptance. She would follow Jesse wherever he went; it was all the choice she had. He was all that she could be sure of.

I hoped her trust was not misplaced.

***

It took us the rest of that day and most of the next to hitch to Greenwater. (I found out by accident, and much later, that hitching's illegal in New York State – so, kids, don't try this at home, okay?) If that sounds an awful long time to travel a few hundred miles, you've obviously never tried to hitch a ride in the company of a wild-eyed, long-haired, unkempt and frankly unsavoury old hippie. In this case, me.

CeCe once again displayed her boundless resourcefulness before we left. She insisted we had to make a pit stop at the bus terminal; once there, I watched in unabashed admiration as she opened up a long-term locker, took out a suitcase, disappeared into the women's room and reappeared half an hour later, clean, made-up, and, if not exactly well-dressed (same old jacket and almost identical, slightly less torn jeans, but new-looking boots), at any rate better dressed. She'd been prettier without the make-up, which was heavily punkish and inexpertly applied, but then, that was probably the whole point, so I didn't mention it. I only wished that I – Jesse – had had the same foresight. I did manage to wash up, kind of, but the rest had to stay rancid. Plus I was stuck with Jesse's guitar. There wasn't room in the locker to stash it, so I hocked it instead. The way I looked at it, if Al and Ziggy were right, neither Jesse nor I would be needing it any more. It paid the price of a motel room that night, plus CeCe and I got to eat again, so I figured it was worth it. If I owed Jesse any apologies, I'd make them to him in person some day.

Except for being slow, the trip went fine. I suppose anyone who'd take the risk of picking up me/Jesse couldn't be too particular. The only bad moment came when someone's radio started playing Buddy Holly singing That'll Be The Day. You know – "That'll be the day when I die." Too close to home. Too weird. I had to pretend I was getting sick, so the driver would throw us out, and I don't think CeCe ever did quite forgive me.

But in the single motel room that was all the guitar money would run to, where she wouldn't hear of me sleeping on the floor, she lay by my side all that night, and reached out to me in her sleep – for warmth, for comfort, for the assurance that she was not alone in the world, who could tell?; and I lay, sleepless, holding her close, feeling Jesse's burning inside of me as though it were my own ...

I don't – normally – have a problem with teenage girls. But still, I thought that night would never end.

***

Greenwater looked just as I'd known it would: white bread country, a middle-class bedroom community, identical brick-built houses, each with a square of lawn and a carport, streets and rows and blocks of them, a nightmare of suburbia. The people who design them call these places conurbations, not towns, which is significant in itself. A town implies a main street with a bank and a post office and a dry goods store, and maybe one of those big, old-fashioned department stores with a fancy clock. A conurbation has a forty-minute drive to the nearest mini-mall. CeCe had to lead the way; I'd have been lost without a map and a compass. But when we came to the right house, she stopped and said, "I can't ..." in a strangled whisper.

I saw curtains twitching all around, and I steered her into the driveway. Freak alert! I thought crazily, neighbourhood hippie watch! All those good, plain, honest, decent folk who'd taken pains not to see bruises or hear screams, they were sitting up and taking notice now, oh yes.

"I can," I said, and I rang the doorbell.

A middle-aged man opened the door: solidly built, bovine, but mild-eyed and harmless-looking, hardly the slavering monster I'd been anticipating. Which was explained when CeCe exclaimed, "Mr Lawson!"

"Lawson?" I echoed – the parrot trick again, it never fails.

"He's my dad's local minister," she hissed at me. I wondered whether that was significant – 'my dad's', not 'our' – and filed it away for future consideration.

"What denomination?" I asked, wondering what difference it made.

"Fifty dollar bills, for preference," she said promptly.

Yeah, right. When it came to humour, so-called, CeCe and Al had a lot in common. What a pity I couldn't introduce them.

"Charlene!" The minister stepped back a pace. You know how you hear about people's eyes bulging out of their heads? Well, his did just that. It made him look exactly like a frog. A large, pale frog in a shiny blue serge suit, but a frog nevertheless. So much for a positive first impression. What he thought of me, I didn't have to guess; his gaze slid over me as quickly as he could manage it. "We thought ... lord have mercy, I don't know what we thought!" He was still blocking the doorway, still staring, leaving CeCe and me standing on the step like a couple of undelivered parcels. "We thought you were dead – why didn't you – ?" He blinked, taking stock, I suppose, of her appearance. "What in the world have you done to yourself?"

A supreme irrelevancy. CeCe ignored it. "Well, I'm not dead," she pointed out impatiently. "Obviously. You ever going to let us in, or what?"

Lawson looked flustered, but stepped mechanically aside. "Yes – yes, of course. Praise be," he added, as an afterthought, suddenly recollecting his ministerial responsibilities. He pressed back against the wall, trying to be inconspicuous about his burning need to avoid coming into physical contact with me. I could see he didn't want to give offence: for all he knew, I might be dangerous. In fact, I thought it might not be a bad idea if I let him think just that very thing, so I deliberately let myself lurch against him as I passed, leaving a smear of oil on the sleeve of his jacket and following it up with a make-something-of-it leer. He gave me a look of veiled disgust and fluttered after CeCe. He probably saw her as a safer option. His mistake.

"Charlene – sweetheart." Cloying, saccharine. "Why'd you run off that way? If there was something bothering you, something wrong at home – you could've come to us. You know that, don't you?"

"I did come to you." Not a safe option at all; her voice was brittle with contempt. "You told me I should honour my father and my mother."

Yeah, wouldn't he just? Having, as I like to believe, my own special relationship with the almighty, I find myself low on tolerance toward those of his so-called servants who don't do justice to their calling.

"Sam." Al popped into view, leaning against the corridor wall directly behind Lawson. "Tell him, Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgement."

"What?" But it sounded apposite, so I squared up to Lawson and repeated it.

"And, Wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together," Al added, obviously getting into his stride. I shot him a look that was intended to convey something along the lines of let's-not-get-carried-away-now, and he subsided.

Lawson's face flushed (a pink frog!), and he glowered at me. I could predict right down to the last word precisely what he was going to say next.

"Satan can quote scripture for his own ends."

Yep. He said it. That was okay; I had an answer all ready.

I smiled, very nicely. "Yeah," I agreed gently. "Can't he just?"

I'm not sure if he understood the implication, but he obviously realised it wasn't a compliment. He edged away from me again and tried to pat CeCe on the arm, except she shied away so hard she almost bounced off the opposite wall.

"Charlene, you know, your daddy's very sick," he told her, his voice hushed and forbearing. "You couldn't have come home at a better time."

"Sure I could," she said rudely. "I could've waited till the bastard stiffed." She marched down the hallway, straight through Al, who sighed in regret at the lack of tactile contact. (Al does have a problem with teenage girls. Al has a problem with anything female.) "Or never at all!" she shot back over her shoulder, and flung open the far door.

I followed her, with the vague aim of giving her any support she might need, but hung back in the doorway. I could sense Al hanging right there with me, looking over (or possibly through) my shoulder.

The blinds were drawn, and the only light came from a reading lamp across the room, but it was bright enough to make out details. It was an ordinary enough room – four walls, a big picture window, built-in closets with tacky, gilt-trimmed white doors, a matching dresser and chairs. The most noteworthy thing about it was its neatness – a painful, psychotic neatness: no pictures on the walls, no bookshelves, nothing unnecessary or ornamental on the flat surfaces, curtains and bedcovers matching, bottles on the bedside table lined up in precise, military ranks. It didn't take much imagination to envision the owner of this room following you around the house, emptying ashtrays and clearing away glasses as soon as they'd been used, plumping up cushions the moment you got to your feet ...

Except he wouldn't have guests, of course. They'd upset the routine, disturb the order. Animals would be a definite no: no pets allowed. While as for children – !

There was a hospital bed in one corner. Connors (I presumed) lay in it, propped up against the backrest, pyjama-clad, his eyes closed. He was a complete surprise: short, hollow-chested, wispy-haired – a real rabbit, even allowing for his illness. A heavy-set, middle-aged woman in a frumpish print rayon dress sat by the bedhead, reading aloud to him by the light of an angle lamp. The fact that what she was reading was a church newspaper made it reasonable to assume that this must be Lawson's wife. On hand to bring the word of the lord and tuna casseroles, no doubt. She looked up as we came in. She didn't register surprise – she must have heard our voices, after all – but her lips tightened when she saw CeCe, thinned yet further as she got a good look at me. You could see that christian charity didn't come easily to her. Finally achieving something that might, without stretching credulity too far, be called a smile, she touched Connors on the arm.

"Charles? Charles, dear, are you awake? You have visitors. Now," she added, with a folksy insincerity that reminded me fatally of the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live, "isn't this a wonderful surprise?"

Connors opened his eyes and fixed his daughter with a red-rimmed, malevolent glare. Not a rabbit after all, I decided. A weasel.

Mrs Lawson climbed heavily to her feet, folded the paper neatly onto the nightstand, set her chair precisely against the wall, and moved over to the door. "Now, why don't we just leave you two alone together?" she asked, sweetly but pointedly. She made as if to take my arm, but clearly thought better of it. "Come, Mr – uh – "

I moved aside, graciously giving her room to pass, folded my arms, leaned against the doorframe, and did my best to impersonate an immovable object. Much as she probably liked to think of herself as one, I didn't assess her as any kind of irresistible force.

"Thanks, but I'll stay. CeCe might need me."

I'd judged correctly. She would clearly have liked to argue, but after she'd looked me up and down a couple of times she just said, "Oh," faintly, and went out, shutting the door behind her. Al materialised through it a moment later, looking ruffled.

"Just because they can't see me, they don't have to treat me like I wasn't here," he complained.

I looked briefly up to heaven. "Al, you aren't here," I reminded him.

CeCe hadn't moved since she had first come into the room. She was standing a few steps inside the door, watching her father. Her face revealed nothing but dislike and contempt, no trace of pity or regret, either for her father or for herself. So much for mending walls.

Well. I hadn't really expected anything else, had I? How could I, knowing their history?

Then why was I disappointed?

The silence in the room was deafening. I felt an insane urge to burst into song, run up and down the walls like Donald O'Connor in Singin' in the Rain, just to break the tension.

Connors gave in first, at long last. His voice was flat, devoid of expression, as he said, "So you finally came home."

That was all. No anxiety, no relief; no emotion at all. Just 'so you finally came home'. This was not a man who'd put his daughter's picture on milk cartons. Hell, even Lawson had had the common decency to express thanks.

"Home?" CeCe responded, just as tonelessly. "I came back – let's keep it at that, okay? I won't be staying. And it wasn't my idea. Uncle Jesse's to thank for this."

For 'thank', read 'blame'.

The small, spiteful eyes shifted and fixed on me. It took a few moments; then Connors registered recognition. "Well, I'll be damned."

I sure hoped so.

"Blue Byrd. Still alive after all, huh?"

"Still alive," I agreed. This wasn't the sort of conversation you could infuse with much in the way of vitality.

He lay back, gazing uninterestedly up at the ceiling. "I'm surprised," he observed, although the tone of his voice didn't convey surprise, or any other emotion, come to that. "All the chemicals you were dropping the last time I saw you, I thought you'd have surely ... flown away, by now."

Oh, my. Rapier wit, or what?

"What he doesn't mention," Al put in, reading off his datalink then fixing Connors with a venomous glare, "is who it was who got Jesse on to chemicals in the first place, back in 1970. Who was the biggest dealer in his unit. Who made a killing, and I mean that in every possible way you can take it, selling dirty acid to his buddies."

I shot him a puzzled look. Why 'dirty'?

"Cut it with heroin, it becomes addictive," he explained patiently. "Ensures repeat business. Much more profitable."

I'd have to take his word for it. My sole experience of smoking dope at college (no buzz, and the world's worst headache the next day) hadn't exactly given me a profound insight into the drugs culture.

I gave Connors a big, friendly smile. "Oh, I'm not flying anywhere, Chuck," I told him amiably. "Not just yet. I'm waiting for you." He turned his head sharply toward me. Good, got his attention. "I thought, wouldn't it be nice if we could maybe climb, oh, say the Trade Centre together, so I could give you lessons. Flying's real easy, Chuckie." Okay, so, I knew that wasn't altogether true ... "Landing, now – that's the big one." And that, at least, was true, as I'd be happy to testify.

The veins were beginning to stand out on his temples, but CeCe let out a welcome crow of laughter, so what did I care? What did it matter, anyway, if her dad didn't like me very much? The feeling was exactly mutual. He wasn't worth spit.

CeCe turned away from her father, came back to me, took my hands in both of hers, held them against her cheek. "I do love you so much, Uncle Jesse." She jerked her head toward the door. "But will you do me a favour and wait outside, just the same?"

I wasn't sure that was a good idea. In fact, I hated it. "Will you be okay?"

She looked contemptuously at her father. "I guess he's harmless enough now. And I've got stuff I need to say to him, private stuff, that I don't want even you to hear. Okay?"

I was going to have to concede, I could see that, but I did it reluctantly. "Okay. But I'll be waiting right outside. If you want me, if you need me, just yell. You got that?"

"Yeah, yeah, sure." She gave me a little shove to help me on my way, stood pointedly waiting till I started to make a move.

"You want me to stay, Sam?" Al offered. "Just in case there's any trouble – ?"

I turned my head to the side, out of sight of CeCe and her father, and muttered, "She said it was private."

"Well, so I won't listen!"

I threw him a quelling look, without any noticeable effect, and went out into the hallway.

The Lawsons were still out there, hovering nervously, but with a determined air of being prepared to do their duty at all costs. He said, "Can we – ?" just as she began, "Do you – ?" They broke off at exactly the same instant, and with exactly identical embarrassed laughs. Lawson turned to his wife.

"Grace, dear, why don't you go fix us all some tea? Charlene and – uh – " He eyed me with ill-concealed distaste, "this young man, they've had a long journey."

Grace looked at me and sniffed. "And whose fault is that?" she snapped, but then lumbered obediently away. Lawson turned back to me.

"I guess we've got you to thank for keeping that little gal alive," he observed with a pronounced lack of enthusiasm – and yes, he really did say 'gal'. It was plain that this concession had taken a lot out of him, and I couldn't see any reason to put myself to the strain of replying in kind.

"I guess we have you to thank for driving her away in the first place," I said bluntly. His mouth dropped open in shock. I don't imagine he was too accustomed to plain speaking from anyone but himself. "You call yourself a minister – if there was anyone she could have turned to, it should have been you. Or your wife. She needed help – not platitudes."

Reminded of his calling, he fell into what I took to be his spiritual adviser mode: a tolerant, understanding smile, a friendly arm on the shoulder, a general air of knowing himself to be the voice of sanity and reason in a mad and hostile world. "Mr – uh ... you know, maybe you shouldn't be so quick to pass judgement. Charlene – well, her daddy, he's a good man, well respected – he's a war hero, you know, regular churchgoer, kept a steady job, up till he ... ah ... got sick, like he is now. And, well, with her mama running off the way she did, with another man – of course, she was – "

Say it, I thought, go ahead and say 'trash'. He had a lousy scriptwriter. I'd seen this movie, hadn't I? I'd walked out halfway through. I could wish I still had the same option now.

He stopped just sort of 'trash'. "Well, I shouldn't say it, but she wasn't much of a wife to Charles, nor much of a mother to Charlene, either."

"Yeah, I know." I smiled agreeably at him, which seemed to unsettle him very satisfactorily. "She's my sister."

He stuttered incoherently for a few moments before he managed to recapture his original drift. "Oh, I – I didn't ... well, what I'm trying to say is, her daddy did the best he could, but maybe Charlene picked up some kind of strange ideas along the way – mind, I'm not saying anything bad against the little gal, but ..." He drew in his breath, and laid out his winning hand with an air of triumph. "I don't suppose you've ever read Freud – ?" Inevitably, he pronounced it 'Frood'.

"Yeah," I told him. "I have." (I had, too, although I couldn't tell you when, or where, or why.) That wiped the smug look off his face, I noticed, pleased. "The so-called father of modern psychology. The man who declared that victims of parental rape were suffering from nothing more than wish-fulfilment delusion, and set children's rights back a hundred years." His mouth was hanging slackly open again. Not pretty. "Some kind of hero of yours, is he?"

This time I'd managed to silence him completely. I watched him flounder futilely for a few moments, wondering why it didn't feel as good as it ought to feel, then turned my back on him. Which meant that when CeCe stormed out of her father's room, which she did just a couple of moments later, she ran straight into me. She shoved me fiercely aside, and slammed into one of the rooms across the hall, sending the door crashing shut behind herself. I followed her before she had a chance to lock herself in. Then I noticed that there wasn't a lock. There were screwholes in the wood where there had once been one ... but it was gone. This room had never been a sanctuary; her only chance for safety had been flight.

"CeCe – " I began, but got no further. She was rummaging through a dresser, dragging drawers out onto the bed, sorting through clothes and flinging them onto the floor, and barely spared me a glance.

"We're leaving tomorrow, Jesse. Soon as it's daylight. Sooner." She looked up at the window and out into the darkness beyond. "I'd go now, but this time I'm going prepared. I'm taking everything I can carry ... enough to make a start for both of us, until we can get ourselves a gig ... enough to get your guitar out of hock!" she added viciously. "Go take a bath, for god's sake, I can't stand it any longer." (That hurt. It wasn't my fault if Jesse wasn't too particular about personal hygiene. Besides, circumstances hadn't exactly been in my favour.) "You know where everything is."

Jesse might have known; I didn't. I figured it out by the simple expedient of opening every door I came to until I found the right one, which gave me ample opportunity to sample the best Marshall Ward had to offer, also to discover that Chuckie-baby favoured the type of cheap carpet that gives you little electric shocks in your feet when you walk across it. Nice.

Al had reappeared somewhere along the line, and followed me around the house. He didn't tell me what CeCe and her father had had to say to one another – maybe he really hadn't listened – but was burning to share his, largely unrepeatable, thoughts on the subject of Charles Connors. I agreed with every word he had to say. Especially when I noticed that there was no lock on the bathroom door, either. At least, I didn't so much notice as find out the hard way when CeCe stamped in while I was in the shower and scooped up my discarded clothing for washing (or fumigation, or maybe merciful cremation). Unwarned, I fled behind the shower curtain and cowered there until she'd gone, cringing with embarrassment as Al – what else did I expect: sympathy, constructive advice? – came close to giving himself heart failure, he was laughing so hard. I didn't see the humour in the situation myself, but that's Al for you, there are times when we simply don't see eye to eye. Just another in a long line of moments that I never want to live again. Collect the whole series.

I wrapped an unpleasant mustard-coloured towel around myself and went to look for CeCe. I found her in the kitchen. She was spooning something brown and slimy out of a serving dish and onto a plate. I'd been wrong about the tuna casserole but this was even better – that is, worse: ground beef and noodle.

"You're going to eat that?" I asked dubiously. Considering how hungry I'd been only a day earlier, it was a wonder how unattractive food could suddenly become.

"It's for my father," she said distantly, going out of the door. "I hope it chokes him. You're welcome to the rest, if you really want it."

I didn't want it. It was a shame there wasn't a dog. Then again, most self-respecting dogs would balk at Grace Lawson's cooking. I covered the dish up and put it back on the hob, got some water from the cooler and sat down to wait.

CeCe came back a moment later. "The Lawsons went home," she told me. "There's a nurse comes in in the morning, they said. I don't plan on waiting around to see him, her, it. It's not like he's completely helpless, or anything." She added, "I think they think we're both damned," and heaved a sigh. "I expect they're right."

"I don't see why," I said gently. I couldn't tell how serious she was; her voice wasn't giving away any clues.

She'd found some bread and salad in the refrigerator and was making sandwiches at the counter, her back to me. "They want me to go and live with them," she told me. "That is, I don't think they want it, exactly; I think he must have had an epiphany." She looked back at me over her shoulder. "I suppose that was you. What on earth did you say to him?"

"We talked about Freud," I said vaguely.

She blinked surprisedly, came around and handed me a full plate. "Since when did you know anything about – ?" She didn't finish the sentence. "Oh ... in hospital? I suppose you pick things up ...?"

"Yeah, communicable diseases, all kinds of useful stuff." I was relieved to see her smile faintly.

"Anyhow, I said no way." She sat down at the dinette, opposite me, and reached across the table, tracing the back of my hand with a finger. "How could I leave you to manage alone?" She smiled again. "I said that, too. Poor Mrs Lawson. You should have seen her face. Oh, she definitely thinks we're damned. I could have told her I was safe with you, I suppose, but what business is it of hers?"

Oh. Yes, right. I remembered now: heroin does sometimes, in fact, frequently, leave the user impotent. That explained something I'd been wondering: why, how, after all that her father had done, CeCe was still able to let me – Jesse – so close to her. Safe, she'd said. Well, and so she was, for all of me.

I turned my hand upward, closing my fingers around hers. "Maybe you should have said yes. It would have been – " Pretty hellishly awful, if I was honest with myself. "Someplace to go, at least, I guess. Someplace better than the street. And it would only have to be for a few years."

Except that, at fifteen, a few years can seem like an eternity. Still, it was an option I maybe ought to consider. Perhaps tomorrow I could talk to the Lawsons again, this time putting our prejudices to one side: CeCe's welfare was the important thing. We should all bear that in mind. Ziggy had confirmed that Connors was not too badly off financially, even allowing for medical bills; once he was gone, his estate, if it was invested sensibly, ought to generate sufficient income to let her finish school, put her through college, give her a start in life. That seemed reasonable enough – surely they couldn't argue too much?

Even if they did think we were damned.

***

I wasn't sure where I was supposed to sleep; by the time I thought about it, CeCe had vanished into her own room and, all things considered, I wasn't about to violate her privacy. I eventually settled uncomfortably down on the living room couch, which had a scratchy nylon cover (in a vibrant orange and yellow floral print that had to have come from a fire sale; no-one would have actually chosen it) and was exactly 5' 6" long. I had had thoughts of sleeping on CeCe's floor – can't you just imagine what the virtuous Lawsons would have made of that? – or even across her doorway, but Al talked me out of it.

"She's put a chair under the doorhandle," he informed me, sliding through the wall to check. "But if you'd like, I'll stay with her anyway," he added, selflessly.

"No, no," I told him. "I know you have an overdeveloped sense of chivalry, but I can't let you be a martyr to the cause."

He grouched a bit, but finally compromised on staying with Connors instead – "Just in case," as he said again. In case of what, neither of us cared to put into words, although having seen Connors' condition, I wasn't really too worried. He wasn't fully bedridden, or so CeCe had implied, but clearly he wasn't strong. He didn't seem like much of a threat.

A rule to live by: never – ever – underestimate the opposition.

***

It was 4.30 in the morning. That was the first thing Al told me, I don't know why. He was yelling right in my ear.

"Sam, come on, Sam, wake up!"

I was awake, rolling off the couch onto the floor, picking myself up, flinging myself out of the door. Something had fallen with a crash; someone had screamed. CeCe.

She must have slept in her clothes. She was fully dressed, pulling on her boots as I raced in and stumbled over the fallen chair that lay just inside the doorway, grabbing up her jacket.

"CeCe – " I began.

"You!" She barged past me, casting me a look so full of rage and ... betrayal? ... that I cringed. Her voice was low, a sibilant, vicious hiss. "You said I'd be safe – you wouldn't let him touch me – you swore to me, Jesse – Jesse, you lied to me!" And she was gone before I could stop her, running down the passage, flinging wide the door, racing away without stopping to pull it to. I spared one glance for Connors, collapsed in agony between the door and the bed, a trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth, then turned to follow her.

"Sam!" Al was in my line of vision, practically bouncing up and down to get my attention. I pulled myself up just before I ran right through him. "Sam, you can't go after her like that – you'll just get yourself busted."

He had a very definite point there. Precious moments wasted while I hunted down the laundry room and retrieved Jesse's still-damp clothes from the dryer. I was still trying to button the shirt as I started down the path. "Centre in on her, Al," I told him. "Help me find her ..."

"Already done." He blinked out, and was back barely a moment later. "This way, Sam – " Then he glanced back at the house. "What about Connors?"

"The hell with Connors," I said violently, but he was right, of course. More time wasted going back, checking his condition – it looked like a stroke, the blood was just where he'd bitten his tongue – making him comfortable, phoning for an ambulance ... I didn't bother to wait. I left the door open for the emergency services, and ran, following Al's lead. CeCe had quite a start on me, but Jesse was, I was, bigger, stronger ...

In really rotten condition, whoever I was, I realised as my wind started to go after less than a minute. I couldn't let that stop me. I made myself forget about Jesse, pretend I was myself again, running team track for my high school and setting another new record (had I really done that, too?).

"She's just around the next turning, Sam – take a left – !"

I skidded around the corner, saw her ahead of me, on the other side of the street. There was just one car in sight. I took a chance I could get across before it reached me, ran recklessly out in front of it –

A voice yelled, "Hey, hippie!" and as I automatically half-turned, something hit me. Not the car, the car had passed me. I was standing on the sidewalk, looking down at myself ... looking stupidly down at the red ruin of my shirt, and the blood spilling out over my hands, over my arms, into my lap as I sank to the ground, pooling all around me ...

... and somewhere very far away, somebody was laughing.

I looked up in anguish, into Al's stunned, horrified face.

"Al ..." I whispered. "I thought ... I thought we were going to change history ...?"

There was a humming in my ears, growing louder and louder until it drowned out the noises of the street, the distant thud of running feet, even CeCe's voice as she began to scream. Somehow, though, I could still hear Al through it all.

"We have changed history, Sam," he told me, checking frantically with Ziggy. "Jesse originally died in downtown Manhattan at 1.45 pm today. You're in the wrong city, and nine hours too early ..."

It cost me an effort, but I managed to turn my head and glare at him.

" ... guess that's not much comfort, huh ...?" he finished weakly.

Right at that instant, the only comfort I could find was that trauma was battling pain and winning. Of course, I considered remotely, there was a downside to this: it was a pretty safe bet that if the gunshot wounds didn't turn out to be fatal (and from the little I'd seen, I thought that they would), the shock would kill me just the same. Swings and roundabouts, roundabouts and swings.

"CeCe ...?"

She said, "I'm here, Uncle Jesse," and I felt a hand brush my cheek for an instant. The weight on my chest lifted slightly, then returned, and I realised that she must be holding a pressure pad to try to stop the bleeding – well-intentioned, if inexpert and ultimately useless. I should have guessed; she wasn't the type to faint or panic. But that wasn't what I'd meant. Al answered my unvoiced question.

"No. There's still no trace of her after today."

I registered his words and their significance, but couldn't react. My mind was starting to float away in a haze of baby-pink cotton cumuli. I found myself dispassionately contemplating the whole question of Leaping anew. I didn't want to seem selfish and lose any spiritual merit points I might have chalked up for myself over the past – however long it had been since I first stepped into the Accelerator – but I couldn't help hoping that these were Jesse Byrd's vital body fluids rapidly pumping away here, not my own. Or, if not, then at least that I'd Leap before I bit the big one, and find myself in some other place and time, miraculously restored. It had worked, I reminded myself, on any number of other, lesser injuries, bruises, grazes, flesh wounds ... hadn't it ...?

And after all, without being callous, Jesse wanted to die – hadn't Al said so? I didn't. Very much so, I didn't. Someone told me once, I can't remember who, that death was just a doorway like any other. Maybe so, but not exactly like any other: it's a door that opens only one way, and I wasn't prepared to take that final step through, not for a long time yet. I had so much to do, so many things to accomplish; I'd barely begun to scratch the surface.

And besides – be damned if I was going to die like this, in someone else's life, miles and years away from my own place and time, from my own friends and family, not even knowing where that place was, who those loved ones were ... No way. No. The hell with that!

Wait a moment. I'd said something important back there a moment ago, something essential to the success of this Leap ...

Jesse wanted to die?

And – I didn't ...?

I fought my way up through the clouds. "Al, I know what the difference is! I know what I'm here to do!"

"Don't try and talk." A stranger's voice: a paramedic. The ambulance had arrived while I was out of things, I was on my way to hospital – I hoped hospital, not mortuary. I could feel CeCe's hands clinging on to mine, the ragged edges of her chewed nails scratching my skin, see her face drifting in and out of focus, white and scared, but dry-eyed, almost angry. She never cries, I thought inconsequentially, she yells instead. Perhaps she can't cry ...

Or perhaps she was afraid to.

There was no sign of Al – no, there he was, stepping through a nonexistent door behind the driver's seat, gliding through a bank of equipment, settling on the floor at eye level to me.

 

"Nice of you to show," I managed to croak. His look of hurt was genuine enough to make me wish I'd saved my breath. Damn, didn't he know that I knew that he wouldn't have left me without a good reason?

He didn't bother to waste words arguing. "Sorry, Sam, I got called away. We've got a crisis in the Waiting Room."

And we didn't have one here – ? Oh. Right. I was going to regret asking the next question, I just knew it. "What kind of crisis?"

"He's hallucinating," I heard one of the paramedics explaining. "Probably thinks he's back in combat. It happens a lot in cases like these."

Al was watching me very carefully, I realised, almost warily, which went a long way toward confirming what I'd already suspected. "There's no-one there, Sam. Jesse – he's gone. And if he's not there – "

"Then he must be – " Suddenly the pain hit me, all in one crashing, blinding wave that swept through me, rebounded, returned again ... again. I couldn't keep back a yell or stop my body from spasming wildly, neural impulses out of control. My eyes blurred; for a moment my surroundings flickered, the interior of the ambulance replaced by a huge, stark white room that I ought to know, did know: the Waiting Room – and the people, the white-dressed men and women racing to cluster around me, I knew them too, all of them, knew them for colleagues of mine, knew their names, god, even their birthdays ...

I was home – !

And I couldn't stay there.

I shut my eyes again and concentrated all my strength inward: concentrated on Jesse, on being Jesse. I still had a mission to fulfil, a life to save. I couldn't go home, not yet; not even if it was my last and only chance.

One of the paramedics said, "What the hell was that?!", just as the other said tiredly, "He's going." I forced my eyes open, looked up at them and said clearly, "No, he's not. Work on that, will you?" I had just time to see them exchange bemused glances before I closed them away again, slipping back inside my mind, seeking out the inmost core of myself to hold it like a fortress against all invaders. Raise the drawbridge, man the battlements, stand ready with the boiling oil ...

Jesse was already there, half-hidden in the shadows that lie between what is and what is to be. He stepped out in front of me, barring my way.

"What about me?" he demanded. "Who the hell are you, anyway? Who gave you the right to steal my life – take my last couple of days – ?"

I gave him a long, searing, contemptuous look, and pushed past him.

"In case you didn't realise it, your life isn't the one at issue here."

He trailed along behind me. "What're you saying? My life – "

"Your life's over. CeCe's is the one that matters. Don't you care what happens to her?"

"Of course I care!" Wild indignation. "I was always there for her – I got her away from her old man, didn't I?" And, at my silence, "Didn't I?!"

"Yeah." I wasn't going to give him any credit here. "Big deal. Some step forward that turned out to be, dragging her out onto the street with you. Was that the best you could do?"

"I love her," he said simply. Like that was supposed to solve everything. Yeah, right. Old hippie that he was, he probably thought it did. "And I'm responsible for her. Look, if it hadn't been for me, my sister and Chuck never would have met. At least ... let me say goodbye to her. Promise me that, and I won't try to get in your way – I'll do anything I can to help you. Deal?"

"Deal," I agreed, not really thinking about it; all my mind was fixed on staying alive. Like climbing a sheer rock face; inching forward a fraction at a time, pausing every moment to seek out new, tiny, precious finger and toeholds ... trying not to look down, not to think of falling (landing), not to remember how, oh, how I hated heights ... Further on and higher up, upward ... upward ...

And slipping, sliding, falling, plummeting, crashing ...

One long, constant note screaming in my ears from somewhere very far away; a familiar sound, one I knew from another time, another life (how many other lives?): a cardiac monitor flatlining.

A chance to save myself: a branch protruding from the cliff face. I caught it, held for a long moment before it started to slip through my hands and I knew that I was going to fall again; heard myself screaming, "Al – !"

"Sam!" He was there, his hand wrapped firmly around mine, real – real! – solid flesh. I gasped out loud in relief –

– and jerked awake, to look straight up into his eyes.

"Al?"

His hands were over mine still, but no longer real; I could see my own through them. It didn't matter. He was there; that was what mattered.

"Al ..." I wanted to ask, what now?; found I hadn't the strength. But he knew.

"Just hold on a little while longer, Sam," he murmured. "Just hang on in there. That's all you have to do – Ziggy's got it all figured. Everything's going to work out just fine, if you can just ... just hold out. Just stay alive. You can do it – can't you?"

I managed to move my hand in assent, though it was almost as much as I could do. This body was sinking very fast now; I didn't know if I could hang on much longer. But I couldn't afford to doubt it: all that kept me going was the grim determination that I would not fail.

"What's – ?" I managed.

"What's happening?" He sat back, letting me have a clear view of the room. CeCe was there, curled up in a chair beside the bed, asleep with her head resting on her arms. No-one else.

"The kid won't leave," Al said. "As long as you're still breathing, she'll be here. You are still breathing, aren't you?"

I just looked at him like, oh, come on!

"Lawson was here earlier," he went on. "I think you shook him up pretty good, Sam, talking about responsibilities. He started out trying to talk her into changing her mind about going to live with him and his wife – 'Honey, we're Christians, not monsters'," he quoted, a vicious parody of Lawson's unctuous style. His worried face broke into a brief grin at the memory. "She might have accepted this time, but then he started telling her it was her Christian duty to go visit her daddy and tell him how sorry she was for letting him down."

Her father. I'd almost managed to forget him. What had happened to him after I'd gone running after CeCe? Had his stroke been fatal? Was he somewhere in this same hospital – maybe even in the next ward? Bizarre thought ...

"She told him he was a hypocrite and a bigot, and she'd sooner starve," Al remembered happily. "I wish I could've kissed her. You know, I wanted to say the exact same thing myself?"

I frowned. Maybe living with the Lawsons wouldn't have been much of an option – but at least it would have been a haven, of sorts, and I didn't know now what else she could do. Of course, it would've meant she'd've had to eat out a lot ... but hell, that was better than not eating at all.

Al went to check his watch, shook himself impatiently, and instead craned around to look at the clock on the wall. "The plane should have landed by now," he observed.

Plane? I looked at him, silently demanding an answer.

"Jesse's ID gave his VA number. They got a message through to his next of kin. And Ziggy's been doing some in-depth checking on his data ..."

The door swung open before he had finished speaking, and a woman came hurrying in: a small woman wearing a heavy coat over Levi's and a tapestry sweater; red-haired, thirties-ish, pretty in a vaguely anorectic sort of way, and somehow very, very familiar ...

CeCe started awake at the sound and slid around on her chair, staring wide-eyed up at the new arrival. I realised who the woman must be at the same moment that CeCe whispered, "Mother?!"

I only hoped that Al (and Ziggy) knew what they were doing.

"Trust me," Al murmured.

Al I trusted. Ziggy ... had been known to make mistakes.

The woman – Al had mentioned her name; it was Maggie, something – crossed the room to my bedside. She stood for a moment, her hands clasped on the bedrail; leaned down to touch me, her mouth trembling, her voice a sigh. "Oh, Jesse ..." Straightening up, she turned to her daughter, tried to draw her into her arms. "CeCe – thank god you're safe ..."

CeCe's shoulders were rigid; she stood within the circle of her mother's embrace, unresponsive. "You were so worried about me? Right. Like you've always been."

Maggie drew back, let her hands drop, stood twisting them around one another uncertainly. "CeCe, you don't understand."

CeCe rounded furiously on her. "Don't understand? You're damn right I don't understand! I don't understand why you ran away – I don't understand how you could just leave me with him – I don't understand why you left me, mother, why you just ran away and left me!"

Her mother's face was white; she looked as though she were about to vomit, or faint. "CeCe ... please ..."

"Do you know what he did to me?"

The pain in her voice made my own fade into insignificance. I would have done anything, given anything, to have been able to heal it, but what could I do? I couldn't move, couldn't go to her, couldn't speak; and if I had been able to, what then? I wasn't the person she knew, the uncle she loved; what could a stranger possibly have to say to her?

Maggie stared at her daughter for an endless moment, her lips moving soundlessly, shaping words of futile denial. Then she swung sharply away, walked rapidly to the window and stared out at the darkening sky for a long while, her hands pressed whitely against the glass. I could hear her breathing, hard and unsteady; I thought she must be holding back tears. Of pity, of sorrow, of remorse? Who knew?

Eventually I saw her take a deep breath. When she turned away from the window, she had herself under control. She came back to my side, took the chair her daughter had vacated and sat, reaching down to close her fingers around mine. She didn't look at CeCe as she said quietly, "Do you know what he did to me, CeCe? He took you away from me. When I went to live with Mark, he took me to court and got custody of you on the grounds that I was an immoral influence and an unfit parent. He was a war hero, I had a criminal record ..."

Al checked. "One arrest at a peace protest and a possession rap in college," he reported. "Real big-time stuff."

"I never stood a chance against him. When I asked them at least to grant me reasonable access, he blocked me every step of the way. When Mark and I went to see him, to try to reason with him, he told us that if we ever tried to contact you again, he'd kill us. All of us, himself, you – all of us. He was insane enough ... I knew what he was capable of. I thought he meant it. I couldn't take the risk." Her body shuddered involuntarily at the memory. She finally looked up at her daughter. "Even so, I didn't let him stop me. All these years I've been trying, trying to get someone to believe me, not what the records say, someone to take my case – someone to get you away from him ... if I'd known ..." She drew another ragged breath. "If I'd known, if I'd known how it was, then nothing would have stopped me, not if we'd had to run for the rest of our lives. I thought – I hoped – I hoped he loved you enough not to hurt you ..."

"Love," CeCe said. Her voice dripped acid. "Is that what it's called?" She had moved around to the other side of the bed, next to where Al still sat listening intently, anxiously. She leaned over me and laid her hand tenderly along the side of my face. "Only one person ever really loved me."

Two. But she couldn't know that.

Her mother shook her head. "No. But only one person was crazy enough not to be afraid of your father," she said. "And Jesse had nothing more to lose."

CeCe's head snapped up. "One thing," she said sharply. "How're you going to pay him back for this?"

"By picking up where he left off." Maggie managed a tremulous smile. "CeCe – Jesse tried to help you. Don't let him down now. All he wanted was to keep you safe. He'd tell you to come home, I know he would."

"Kind of funny he never got in touch with you then, isn't it?" CeCe pointed out, heavily ironic.

"He was such a deadhead, it probably never even occurred to him," Al observed. "I think that's your cue, Sam."

I thought so too. "CeCe ..."

Her face lit up as she heard my voice. "Uncle Jesse!" She flashed a glance of blazing triumph at her mother. "I knew it – I knew he wouldn't leave me!"

Maggie looked away, biting her lower lip. CeCe leaned closer to me.

"Uncle Jesse? Isn't that right? You're going to be okay ..." Her voice wavered in spite of herself. "Aren't you ...?" she ended uncertainly.

I turned my head slightly, into the curve of her hand.

"No ..." Talking was difficult: I had better try to make every word count. "CeCe – this is it ... this is the end." I made myself smile. "The blue bus is calling us ... remember?"

Were there tears behind her eyes? I found myself hoping so, hoping desperately. A breach in her defences; a chance at least to begin to heal. It wouldn't happen overnight – how could it? – but tears would help to wash away the hurts of the past, clean the slate, prepare the way for a new beginning. "Driver, where're you taking us?" she whispered, barely audibly; her hands against my face were very cold. The room was cold ... no, not the room; not the room. I was, Jesse was, almost out of time. "Hippie," she added, faintly accusing.

"You said it." She'd listen to me; she had to. There would never be another chance. "CeCe – your mother loves you. Let her try to help you. Promise me."

"No!" It was a shriek, torn from her throat. She flung herself to her knees by the bedside, clutched wildly at my arms. "Stay with me!"

"I can't ..." I was losing it, losing everything, everything. "CeCe – promise ..."

I was falling again ...

Lost.

... in a Roman wilderness of pain ...

Warming his hands by the fading embers of my life, his life, Jesse looked up at me. "It's over?"
And all the children are insane ...

I shook my head. "No. Not quite."
Waiting for the summer rain ...

Waiting for the rain to fall, to fall soft and warm and gentle onto the parched and arid wasteland; waiting, endlessly waiting for the quiet miracle that would bring back life and hope and promise to the desert: forgiveness and renewal.

When it finally came, it came so quietly that it barely registered: one little drop sliding across my skin; then another and yet another, becoming a trickle, a shower, a deluge. I looked up for the last time out of Jesse's eyes, knowing what I would see.

CeCe was crying; the dam had given way at last. The tears came in great, gulping, heaving sobs that racked her whole body; crying as though her heart would break. Perhaps it was breaking; perhaps it had to be broken anew before it could be mended. I saw her mother rise, coming to her, enfolding her daughter in her arms; I looked toward Al, and I saw him lean back against the wall of the Imaging Chamber, letting out a great sigh of relief, his hands coming briefly up to cover his face. Then his eyes met mine and he smiled, throwing me a victory salute. He spoke to me, but the humming had returned again, louder than ever, drowning out his words. But I knew what they had been.

I turned back and called out Jesse's name. "Jesse? Now it's over ..."

And as blackness began to close in all around me, I Leaped …

***

... and jerked awake from a nightmare vision of falling ...

... to find myself in a strange bed, in a strange body ...

... but at least a complete body, I discovered, looking to make sure. Thank god!

Who could sleep? I reached for the clock by my bedside: 5.00 in the morning. Uh-huh, just wonderful. Still, I seemed to be alone, so I thought maybe I could get up, take a look around, check out where and who I was, and not disturb anybody.

Wrong again. As I turned on the light and opened the bedroom door, I heard a thin wail: a baby. A very young baby, by the sound of it. Oh, boy. One of my specialties.

I followed the sound to its source: a wet, angry and extremely vocal little person in a crib. I picked him up, noting in the mirror opposite as I did so that I appeared to be his mother. I'd already suspected as much – the nightgown had kind of given it away. Great.

The little guy was not only wet but, he was trying to tell me, hungry – hungry enough not to care that his needs were being attended to by a strange man wearing his mother's clothes. I hoped the woman wasn't breastfeeding. No, there was formula in the kitchen, a bottle ready made up in the fridge. No bottle warmer, no microwave ... I put a pan of water on the stove, and did it the old-fashioned way. It took five minutes to raise the temperature to blood heat ... or was it ten? I couldn't remember, let alone recall how I happened to have acquired that snippet of information in the first place. I dealt with the diaper while we were waiting, taking quiet pride in the efficient way I dealt with the folds, remembered the liner, and even managed not to jab either of us with the pins. Oh, they'd never hang it in the Guggenheim, but to my mind it was a work of art. That done, I tested the milk against my wrist, settled myself in the nursing chair that was pulled up to the kitchen table, and offered Junior the bottle. He made a wild grab at it, caught it between two diminutive fists, and proceeded to suck vigorously. I leaned back, watching him, a sense of inner tranquillity warming me. Good lord, latent maternal instincts, who'd've thought it? I was kind of glad Al wasn't there to offer some of his sleazier reminiscences ...

Then again, I kind of missed him, too; I had a lot to thank him for. Where was he? He'd have usually appeared by about this point. I hoped his absence didn't indicate any more problems back at the Project.

The Project; yes. If it had done nothing else, this last Leap had made me stop and think a little harder, a little deeper, about my own life, my own work. The Quantum Leap project has cost literally billions of dollars to date, and will cost billions more before we're done; it gives employment to maybe a couple of hundred. And in the meantime there are thousands, no, millions out there without homes, without food, without any hope for a better future ... not only in the starving Third World, but in my own country, one of the richest in the world, on my own back doorstep. How could I excuse that? Sure, I'm a scientist, and I believe that all knowledge is of value in its own right – but there are other, more critical values. Time travel? Show me the human benefit in that. Not so much as a pen that writes upside-down and underwater.

It reminded me of something Feynman said to me once: you start a project for a good reason, then you work very hard and it's fun, it's exciting; and it's such fun, you're so excited, that you stop thinking, you lose all sense of perspective, until it becomes not a means to an end, but an end in itself. The impact of his work was infinitely more far-reaching than Project Quantum Leap could ever be, that goes without saying, but the principle remained the same. Exactly the same.

I'd wasted my life; how had I never seen it before? I'd frittered it away in the selfish pursuit of intellectual acclaim, while the bigger issues, the things that mattered, had passed me by unheeded. Me, with my six doctorates, and my Nobel prize, and my eyes so firmly fixed on the far horizon that I never once looked down to see where my feet might be treading. It occurred to me for the first time that it was entirely possible that the Sam Beckett who had made that original Leap might not, after all, have been a very nice person to know.

Maybe that was why my Leaping had been taken out of my merely human hands ...

Perhaps I should start looking on it as kind of a celestial community service ...

Junior had drained his bottle to the final drop, been winded and brought back the last mouthful all over my shoulder before Al finally put in an appearance. He was looking, I noted with irritation, more dissipated than ever. While I'd been soul-searching, he'd obviously been out partying. So much for guilt.

"Did I disturb you?" I asked coldly.

He stifled a yawn. "Late night." He looked at his datalink. "In any case, Ziggy says you've already done what you came here to do. If you hadn't come along and picked him up, little Davey there was about to roll over onto his pillow and become an SIDS statistic." He yawned again. "What does a kid that age need a pillow for, anyway? Doesn't his mother know anything? Take it out of the crib before you go, will you?"

"I already did," I told him. "And I left Dr Spock on the table, with a marker in the page that says so. Anything more I ought to be doing?"

He checked with Ziggy again. "Nope. Not that we can see. So, I expect, just as soon as Davey gets back to sleep, you'll be on your way – " He made a vague waving-off gesture. "And I can get back to CeCe."

I said, "What?!" Davey hiccuped, brought back a bit more of his feed, then dropped angelically off to sleep again. I grabbed a tissue and mopped off my nightgown. Al looked taken aback.

"Hey, take it easy, Sammy! I'm just fixing her up some new bookshelves – you know how that girl reads ..."

I did? Well – maybe in his timeline.

"Al," I said tightly, "who is CeCe?" And why are you fixing her bookshelves?

He blinked at me. "You don't remember CeCe? Jeez, how could you forget – ah, no, forget I asked that. I guess if you don't remember, I'd better not – "

"Al!" I warned him.

"She's our pilot, back on the Project, flies light planes and choppers, brings in supplies and the mail, makes the school run and emergency medical runs, ferries invited guests and VIPs backward and forward, keeps the kids entertained with free flights up at weekends," he rattled off, all in one breath. "Uh ... she's got red hair, green eyes, a Maine Coon called Woodstock and a twelve-year-old alley cat called Ripley, because no-one believes how ugly it is ... steals sugar ..."

"Sugar?" I echoed.

"Yeah." He shrugged. "It's kind of weird. Every time we're in the cafeteria, she slips those little packets of sugar into her pocket. I don't know why – she never uses it. All over her kitchen, there's all these little packets of sugar ... Still, no-one's perfect, I guess ..."

I knew why. She'd done it on the road to Greenwater. Extra carbohydrates for warmth.

Some wounds leave scars too deep ever to be completely healed.

" ... satisfied?"

No, I wasn't. I was confused. It made sense that the Project would employ a pilot; insofar as I remembered anything about it at all, I remembered that we'd built it way, way out in the middle of nowhere. If I really focused my mind, concentrated hard, I could even picture ... him. Yeah, him. A guy called –

"So, what happened to Marty?"

Now he looked puzzled. "Marty? Marty who?"

"Skip it." I tried another angle; decided not to ask about the bookshelf business. I was pretty sure that we had some kind of caretaker on contract. I didn't want to know. "Al – what was our last Leap?"

"1965," he said promptly. "San Francisco. You handed an envelope back to a man who'd left it on the bus. It turned out to be Richard Brautigan's only copy of the first draft of Trout Fishing in America. Talk about your major cosmic influences – !"

"1965? Not 1984?"

"No, Sam," he said quietly. I knew exactly what he was thinking: he was thinking that the strain of Quantum Leaping was finally getting to me, making me lose even such fragments of my mind as the original Leap had left me. I knew better: I knew that I'd altered history – his, mine, CeCe's – even Marty's, whoever he had been, if he'd ever really existed. For every action, an equal and opposite reaction. Ripples spreading out from every little change that I effected, the ripples becoming eddies, the eddies waves, the waves rollers, breakers, tsunamis ...

That was nice. I rather thought that CeCe would have liked to think of herself as a tsunami.

And I knew why I hadn't yet Leaped. I had a debt to pay.

"When you get back," I asked him, "will you give her a message?"

Al was instantly suspicious. "From you?"

Now – was that jealousy? Or was it just caution? I might never know ...

I shook my head. "No." I smiled faintly. "From Jesse."

It meant nothing to him. Why should it? She almost certainly didn't talk much about her past, and Al didn't remember. I wondered what Ziggy had retained of that last Leap, if anything. Could he monitor divergent timelines? Was he keeping a record of the changes I'd made? How complete a record, if so, and for whom?

"Jesse?" Al echoed, and looked more suspicious than ever. With reason. "Who – ?"

"She'll know." I laid my head back against the chair, and remembered those last few moments; remembered the words Jesse had wanted so badly to say, but had failed. Had failed because I had taken the last of his strength; taken when, if I had only asked, he would have surely given.

I owed him.

"CeCe ... I tried to take care of you ... I wish we'd had more time ... CeCe, I love you ..."

The end.

I settled Davey more comfortably in my arms, and waited to Leap.

***