Mark had already moved to California when her father received fresh orders.
“Where now?” Sam asked. Moving was old news - pitching a fit about it never changed anything so she’d learned to greet each move as a new beginning instead of lingering over what was left behind.
“Colorado Springs,” her father murmured, looking over the paperwork with a frown. That didn’t mean anything bad - but it didn’t necessarily mean good news either.
“They want you to teach school?” she asked a little disbelievingly. Not that teaching wasn’t a noble profession or that her father wouldn’t be any good at it, but he had clear goals and teaching felt a little like getting shelved.
“Peterson,” he corrected. “NORAD is there too, I think, in the mountain complex.”
“But it doesn’t say what you’ll be doing?” she pressed.
“I don’t ask questions, Sammy, I just show up,” he said.
“How long?” she asked. He frowned. Here was the bad news.
“What about when school starts?” she asked. She was a sophomore at Florida State University - her father worked at Tyndall - but she wasn’t particularly thrilled with her education so far. Colorado had some good schools and transferring would be easy enough.
“You’re an adult now,” her father said. “But you always have a home with me if you want it.”
So that settled that.
Her father went ahead to get the housing sorted, buy a car. Sometimes they drove to their new town but Florida to Colorado in July with a Volvo that had spotty air conditioning was too ambitious even for the Carters. Sam was in charge of shipping the last boxes west, turning in their keys, getting herself and her two suitcases to the airport on time. Her father had arranged to have the car sold and a man and his two squirming kids had appeared to pick it up on her last day in town. She took a cab to the airport, knowing her father would be on the other side to greet her.
They’d only lived in Florida for 18 months. She’d graduated high school and because she wasn’t certain what she wanted, enrolled in the closest university. Her father had been pressing her to join the Air Force but, like her brother, growing up as a military brat had soured her against the lifestyle. No, science was her true love, so in a way, the move to Colorado Springs was a gift. FSU had some hard science, but it wasn’t exactly their strongest program. Sam knew, as an undergrad, that her real scientific work wouldn’t come until her graduate studies, but it certainly couldn’t hurt to get her applied mathematics degree from a stronger university. Or maybe chemistry. Possibly physics.
The University of Colorado had a much stronger applied sciences program and was military friendly which meant her request to transfer at an odd time of the year was not only accepted, but welcomed.
No, Sam Carter was not sad to leave Florida behind. A better education awaited her, she got to be to with her father, much closer to her brother, and though he didn’t say it outright, Sam could tell that her father had been pleased with the orders. She wonder if he had friends at Peterson.
Her father picked her up in a green Jeep with big tires and a dented door. He hefted her suitcases into the back and then hugged her hard. It was about fifteen degrees cooler in Denver and the lack of humidity was a blessing.
“Not your usual style,” Sam said, touching the back of the car. Her father leaned towards leasing nicer cars rather than buying junkers.
“You’ll thank me when it’s snowing,” he says. That was a fair point.
“I like it,” she said. The Jeep rode a little rougher than she was used too, but the 70 mile drive from Denver to Colorado Springs went quickly enough. When they hit city limits, Jacob stopped at a restaurant for dinner. Talking about school had taken them up to this point and now Sam grilled her father about his new position. He was a Colonel but part of the reason he was so willing and able to upset his life was his ambition to make General. A stint at Peterson Airfield would only help him to achieve that.
When they pulled up to the small house that the Air Force was providing them with, there was another car in the driveway. An old, gray Honda.
“Who is that?” she asked, unbuckling her seat belt.
“That’s you,” her dad said. “Surprise!”
“You got me a car?” she said. “Dad that’s amazing!”
“We’re a little far from campus for you to walk and anyway, you deserve it, kiddo,” he said. He pulled a set of keys out from the center console and gave them to her. She leaned across and hugged him.
“Thank you,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” he said. “You can christen it in the morning when you pick up breakfast.”
They did this when they moved to a new city. They took turns running out to pick up the things they needed - it helped them learn the city. Sometimes Sam just got intentionally lost to see what she discovered while she figured out how to get back home. Her mother had called her adventurous, spirited, and fearless and had often told the story of Sam being four years old and climbing onto the roof. How they’d called the fire department to get her down and how she’d never cried, not even when she’d been disciplined later.
“Deal,” she said.
Her room wasn’t much - a twin bed and the boxes she’d shipped ahead of her arrival. She pushed them to the other side of the room by the small wooden desk where she could do her homework. She hung up some of her clothes and put sheets on the bed and it didn’t take long to fall asleep. Mark had always struggled to adapt to a new house and a new town, but Sam could fall asleep on that first night like she’d always lived there. A warm bed was a warm bed, after all, and she was lucky to have one no matter where she rest her head.
She was glad when the semester started. She’d gotten the hang of the city, at least her neighborhood and the route to campus. She’d walked around the school for a while when she’d got to register for classes. She’d been undeclared at FSU and decided to remain so until she got to know the school better. She signed up for what her dad called the appetizer platter - a little of everything. Advanced chemistry, a biology lab, physics for majors (she had to get permission for that from the dean), a theoretical mathematics class, and, because she’d felt like taking something fun, a basic astronomy class.
Monday, with her schedule and a campus map firmly in hand, she set out for her first day of classes. She had her Math Theory class and three hours of biology - both the lecture and later, the lab. Unfortunately, her lab met on Fridays, too. Because she’d registered late, she could not achieve the college dream - the three day weekend. It wasn’t the most cohesive schedule but she didn’t mind hanging out on campus in the library or in the physics lab or even going home and coming back for her longer breaks.
On Wednesday, after her class, she went onto base at Peterson to see her dad’s new office and then have dinner with him.
“I have to run an errand,” he said when she’d just dropped her heavy book bag onto the chair facing his desk. “Then we can eat, deal?”
“Sure,” she said. “What is it?”
“I have to go to the Academy,” he said. Sam was used to elusive answers and didn’t pry. Classified was classified and she could’ve joined the Air Force but she hadn’t, so not being in the know was just fine with her.
“It’s a beautiful campus,” he promised. “You can take a look around while you wait.”
Sam had taken his advice and wandered around for about half an hour, but she’d gotten bored and returned to the hallway where she’d left her father. He was at the other end of the long corridor, talking to someone - a man. Older than Sam but probably not quite her father’s age, the man had brown hair going silver at the temples and he was maybe in his late thirties and, Sam thought, quite handsome in a very disarming way. More interestingly, he wasn’t in uniform. Sam kept her distance and watched her father shake hands with the man and then part ways. He spotted Sam and walked toward her.
“Who was that?” she asked.
“Just an old service buddy,” her dad said. “Retired now. Teaches at the prep school.”
Sam was glad that at least her father had friends here and if not friends, then at least acquaintances. The only person Sam knew was her dad and making long lasting friendships was not her strong suit. She knew what loneliness was and she wished it on no one.
Thursday morning, Sam rose early to make her father breakfast.
“What’s today?” he asked, sitting at the little table and allowing her to pour him a cup of coffee.
“Chem,” she said.
“I thought you took that last year?”
“It didn’t transfer,” she said. “And this class is better anyway. More challenging, I guess.” She shrugged. “According to the registrar.”
“Well they haven’t invented a math my little girl can’t do yet,” Jacob said proudly. Sam rolled her eyes and set his plate in front of him.
“I also have astronomy tonight so I won’t be home for dinner,” she said.
“Your university has a class on horoscopes?” he asked with a wink.
“That’s astrology,” she corrected anyway. “Not stars.”
“You’ve always had one eye on the stars,” he said.
“Astronomy is a branch of physics dad, not making pictures in the sky. And anyway, we’ve already put a man on the moon, so going farther is just a matter of time,” she said.
Jacob snorted. “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”
“Mark liked Captain Kirk,” she said. “I liked Bones. Anyway, I’ll be home late.”
She went to her Chemistry class and found it no more challenging that what FSU had to offer and then drove home again to do her homework and make a dinner to leave in the fridge for her father when he got home. She didn’t particularly like to cook but with her mother gone, she thought it best she made sure they didn’t starve.
Then after she ate a plate of food herself, she drove back to school. She didn’t tend to take a lot of late classes because she was more of a morning person but she could immediately see the benefit of missing rush hour. The parking lots for commuter students were far more manageable this late. She parked close to her building and found her classroom. It was a smaller room, not a lecture hall, and it seemed like there would only be around 30 students if the number of chairs was any indication. There were four or five people already seated so she claimed a seat near the front and slipped tiredly into the chair.
It was an introductory course and she’d already read the first few chapters of the textbook so she wasn’t too concerned about being super alert. With any luck this - she glanced at her now crumpled schedule - J. O’NEIL would toss them a syllabus and send them on their way. She liked learning as much as the next person, but she was not above taking a freebie class the first week of school. She was a geek, not a wet blanket.
The room filled up with about twenty-five people, including a few faces she recognized from her math class and one boy she was sure was in her physics course. About two minutes to seven, the professor walked in. Sam sat up in surprise. She recognized him.
It was the same man with silvered temples who’d been speaking with her father the day before. Apparently her father had been wrong about where he taught.
“First of all,” said the man, “it’s O’Neill with two Ls.” He wrote it on the board with chalk. “I’d sell my soul for them to spell my name right but they never have and they apparently never will, so the best I can do is to have you spell it right.” There was a mild chuckle across the room.
“Secondly,” he said, tossing the chalk down. “This is astronomy, so if you’re here to get your fortunes read, the exit is in the back of the room.”
Sam sighed. What was it with grown men and that joke?
“Finally,” he said. “This is not an easy course, not a joke, not a puff piece. If you’re planning on sailing through it, don’t waste my time. I’m a busy and underpaid guy.”
Sam sat up a little straighter, feeling guilty about thinking about how easy she expected it to be.
“Now you will notice,” he said, picking up a stack of the syllabus and passing it around, “that my office hours are a little wacky. That’s because I also teach at the Academy prep school. If you can’t see me during my after dark office hours, you can leave a note in my box or call and leave a message and I will try to figure out a time to work with you.” Professor O’Neill waved listlessly toward the back of the room. “What?”
The guy from her physics class had his hand in the air.
“I thought you had to be military to teach there,” he said.
“Who are you?” O’Neill asked.
“Felger,” he answered. O’Neill glanced down at his roll sheet and put a check down.
“How many of you are military brats?” he asked. Sam, along with four others, raised her hand. O’Neill looked right at her. “Can you answer his question?” O’Neill asked.
“Professor O’Neill is retired Air Force,” she said. “Probably you made... Colonel? Probably black ops.”
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Samantha Carter,” she said. He checked her off the list.
“The rank I’ll give you as a good guess,” he said. “But I’m curious to know why you would guess black ops?”
“I believe you served with my father, sir,” she said.
“Well, Miss Carter is correct,” O’Neill said. “Which means I am both a qualified Air Force instructor and a magnificent shot, so don’t get on my bad side.”
He went through the rest of the class list and then talked about some astronomy basics. He assigned them reading that Sam had already finished and set them loose. While she was cleaning up her notes and packing her book bag, he said, “Carter!”
“Yeah?” she answered.
“You Jacob’s daughter?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” she said. “He’s the new second in command at Peterson.”
“I saw him yesterday,” he said. “He’s a good officer.”
“I think so,” she said.
“That’s it,” he said. “Go on. See you next week.”
When she got home, she told her father that her class was fine and, for some reason, kept meeting Jack O’Neill to herself.
Soon, the newness of Colorado and her campus faded and she found herself a little bored. She stood in front of one of the notice boards outside of the library. There were plenty of activities on a college campus to keep her busy, not to mention getting a job. She tucked her hair behind her ear and contemplated joining a sorority for about ten seconds before dismissing it. Cheerleading tryouts were coming up, but Sam had zero experience in that field, as athletic as she was. She’d never stayed at any school long enough to join a squad.
She snagged the phone number off a flyer looking for tutors. She could do that easily enough and she wouldn’t have to wait tables. She was about to walk away when she saw it - Astronomy Club, Wednesdays at 8:00pm. Meets at Cheyenne Mountain near the head of the Medicine Wheel Trail.
As interested as she was in star gazing, that was quite the trek. She pulled the flyer off the board to look at it closer and saw that the faculty sponsor was Jack O’Neill. She tucked the flyer into her pocket just in case.
She signed up as a tutor and her first session was Wednesday night, so she couldn’t attend Astronomy club. Instead, she met her tutoring student, a big, hulking black football player named Murray who had to pass Algebra to stay on the team.
“Everyone calls me T,” he said and she didn’t question it. He was huge, but oddly quiet and gentle. She gave him a worksheet to try to gauge where he was ability-wise and it was not great.
“The school allows for two sessions a week,” Sam said. “We should probably use them.”
“Indeed,” T said.
Between their schedules and T’s football obligations, they decided on Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings. Sam got her Wednesday nights back and was glad.
“So what’s your major?” Sam asked.
“Well,” he said. “It’s English Lit, but that’s just because I didn’t think Creative Writing and getting a job later went together.”
“You’re a writer?” she said.
“A poet. Not a mathematician,” he said. “C’est la vie.”
“Are you military raised?” T asked while they cleared up their table in the library.
“My dad is an Air Force Colonel,” she said. “You?”
“My dad died in Vietnam,” T said. “I live with my uncle now.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
He shrugged it off. “See you Friday, blondie,” he said. She watched him go, surprised the nickname did not bother her more. It seemed like T was the kind of person she’d rather have in her corner, given the choice.
In Astronomy, Professor O’Neill mentioned the Astronomy club and passed out the same flyer she had in her bag. This one had a map with directions photocopied onto the back. O’Neill offered five points extra credit to anyone who joined. It was a laughably small amount and he smirked like he knew it. In fact, it was beginning to look as if Astronomy club was unattractive by design. It made Sam want to go more, if only for spite.
So Wednesday night, Sam brought her flyer and the state map her father had tucked into her car and she navigated through the darkness to the trailhead at the foot of the mountain. She was just about to admit defeat when her headlights cut across a dark green truck parked by a wooden fence. She pulled up next to it and shut off her engine. She put on her jacket - it was cool out here - and glanced at her wrist watch. 7:53pm. She zipped up her jacket and pulled a flashlight from the glove box.
As soon as she walked around the truck, however, she saw him. He was sitting on a blanket on a small patch of grass beyond the wooden fence. A moderately sized telescope was set up next to him, but he was stretched out on the blanket with his hands under his head, gazing with his naked eye. She didn’t kid herself that he hadn’t noticed her arrival. She walked toward him.
“Was in the five points that lured you out here?” he asked without turning his head to look at who approached. “Are you so hard up that five points is gonna make or break you?”
“I just like star gazing, actually,” Sam replied. O’Neill turned to look at her.
“Samantha Carter,” he said. “Congratulations. You are the only person to ever attend Astronomy club in six semesters.”
“It’s a faculty requirement,” he said. “Though not a requirement that the clubs be successful.”
“Sam,” she said. “I go by Sam.”
“Have a seat, Carter,” he said, offering her a corner of the blanket. “I knew my solitude couldn’t last forever.”
“I could just go and we could pretend that I never showed up, sir,” she offered, though she did sit down.
“Nah,” he said. “It’s a clear night and I read your in-class response on spatial phenomena so I know you’re not here as a joke.”
“No,” she said thoughtfully. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to declare as a physics major.”
“No Air Force for Colonel Carter’s daughter?” he asked.
“My brother and I both disappointed him in that regard,” she said. “I’m more interested in theoretical physics... astrophysics I suppose. Rather than applied.”
O’Neill grunted like he neither agreed or disagreed but he understood her.
“I can’t blame the post Vietnam generation for not enlisting,” he said.
“That too,” she agreed. She shifted a little so she wasn’t sitting on a rock and looked up. “So what’s on the club agenda?”
“I have honestly never needed one before right now,” he said. “And have therefore have never planned one.”
“Nice and prepared,” she joked. “Well as you said, it’s a clear night. Just looking up is nice enough.”
“Feel free to use the telescope,” he said. She nodded and got up onto her knees to peer through the eyepiece. It was a decent telescope but he didn’t have it fixed on anything, so she moved it a little and had a look around, just for fun.
“See any flying saucers?” he asked.
“Not yet,” she said. “I’ll keep you posted.”
“I have a better telescope, actually,” he admitted. “But it’s mounted on my roof and not for traveling. This one is okay, though.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “It’s pretty good.”
“So where was dear old dad stationed before this?”
“Tyndall,” she answered. “We weren’t there that long though. Not two years.”
“They have him moving around a lot these days?” he asked.
“It feels like it, but I think it’s average. You would know. How many times did the Air Force uproot you and your family?” she asked.
“I don’t have a family,” he answered, but his pleasant tone had soured and the answer came too quickly, so she backed off. She sat back on her heels, away from the telescope and hugged her arms around herself.
“It’s colder here, that’s for sure,” she said. “Compared to Florida.”
“This is nothing,” he said. “Wait until the snow.”
Weather was always a safe topic and she felt a little better. “Next week, I’ll bring a thermos of coffee,” she promised.
“Next week,” he sighed. “You know the five points are yours just for showing up, right?”
“I’ll keep the minutes,” she said, leaning in conspiratorially, “in case you don’t show up.”
“Deal,” he said with a small, almost smile. “All right, let’s call it a night, whaddya say?”
She helped him remove the telescope from the tripod and carried the legs to his truck. She followed his truck back into town, his red tail lights showing her the way.
Sam didn’t tend to unpack her boxes. She didn’t have many, but there were three or four that she just kept moving around with her and never opening. One was a box of her mother’s things, clearly labeled so she didn’t opening it by mistake, but there was another one full of childhood relics and she slit the tape on this one and pulled back the flaps. Somewhere in here, mixed in with the old stuffed animals and science fair medals, was her old telescope. It was not good, but it had shown her that first, distant look at the stars as a child and she wanted to bring it to the mountain. Maybe Professor O’Neill would make fun of it, but it was something and she wanted to see how it had held up over the years.
She left when there was still a little light in the sky, not wanting to navigate the windy roads in the pitch black again. But by the time she arrived at their spot, it was practically dark. The weather had turned and she could see her breath - she’d dug her warmer coat out of her suitcase from several years ago and it was a little snug. She’d have to buy a new one.
She sat in the car for a while reading her biology textbook by the dome light of her car and when it was close to eight, she got out and pulled an old quilt from her trunk. She carried the thermos of hot coffee and her little telescope and settled in to wait.
Ten minutes after the hour she began to fret that he wasn’t coming, that he’d taken her little joke about keeping club notes as permission not to come and that she’d come all the way out here for no reason.
Well, not for no reason. Though it was cold and her fingers were freezing in her pockets, the sky was still clear and she hadn’t lied before, she did enjoy star gazing. She set up her telescope and took a look. It wasn’t nearly as nice as the one Professor O’Neill had brought, but it was better than nothing and she found she had missed this, this sense of wonder and raw curiosity about the universe. She’d somehow lost it for a while, after her mother’s accident, but she was here and alive and she found, suddenly, that she wanted it back.
She was thinking about cracking the thermos when she heard the sound of an engine and then saw the lights of his truck pulling up to where she was. She felt a flutter of relief and then quietly chastised herself. At best, he was indulging her, at worst, he was resenting her for making him do all of this. Still, besides her father, it seemed like this Professor was the person she’d spent the most time talking too since coming to Colorado. Professor O’Neill and T, her only tutoring student so far.
“Evening,” Professor O’Neill said, hopping down from his truck.
“I was starting to wonder,” she said.
“Yes, well,” he said. “Time got away from me. Didn’t mean to make you worry.”
“I wasn’t worried,” she said. He smirked at her and she looked away, glad for the darkness.
“What have we here, Carter?” he asked, pointing at her telescope.
“Just a little something I pulled out of storage,” she said, feeling embarrassed now that she was here. She’d wished she hadn’t brought it. “My brother and I used to share it when we were younger but he never much cared for going outdoors.”
“Your first telescope,” he said, sitting next to her with a groan. She heard his knee pop and he winced.
“Just old,” he said. “Watch out, it’ll happen to you, too.”
“How long have you been retired from the Air Force?” she asked.
“Well, I’ve been teaching for about three years, so almost four, I guess,” he said. “I could have stayed on but I was done.”
“Dad wants to make General,” she said.
“A man like Jacob could,” O’Neill said. “Let me see your scope.”
“It’s silly,” she said, handing it to him. “I shouldn’t have...”
“It’s not very strong, but it isn’t silly. This is more than a toy,” he said. “A good starter piece.”
“You’re humoring me,” she accused.
“This whole exercise is humoring you, Carter,” he said. “I could be home in recliner drinking beer and watching hockey.”
“Oh,” she said. “Well I think you should do that then.”
“No, I didn’t mean...”
“I’ve actually been here a while, so why don’t we just call it a night,” she said, moving to stand up. She got onto her knees and wiped her hands on her pants and made to stand but he reached out and snagged her arm to stop her.
“I didn’t mean to sound like an ass, Miss Carter,” he said. “I do like it out here.” She hesitated and then nodded and sat back down. He took his hand away.
“Next week I promise to do my part as faculty supervisor and actually teach you something,” he said.
“I wouldn’t want to overwhelm you entirely, sir,” she said. He let out a bark of laughter.
“Feisty. I like it.” They settled into a little window of silence until he said, “I believe I was promised coffee?”
She handed him the thermos. He unscrewed the lid and poured himself a cup. He sipped at it for a bit and then, realizing she hadn’t brought another cup, passed it to her. She took it and drank. The coffee was already cooling in the mountain air.
“I think I could have done well in the Air Force,” she said. “I just... all the moving around and the changing orders and the threat of war... I just could never make myself want that.”
“There were good things,” O’Neill said. “The structure, the security. The weight of the government behind you, educating you, the travel.”
“Why did you join?” she asked.
“I couldn’t pay for college,” he said. “I had nowhere else to go and I wanted to fly.”
“And did you?”
“Oh yeah,” he said.
She smiled and handed the coffee back to him. He added a little more and drank it.
“What does the astronomy club do when the weather turns and it’s too cloudy to see stars?” she asked.
“Guess you’ll have to wait and see,” he said.
“Do you subscribe to the multiverse theory?” she asked. She was still thinking about him flying planes.
“Um.” He ran his hand over his head, making the hair on top stand up.
“It’s the theory that everything that can exist does exist,” she explained. He shifted a little on the blanket and so she went on. “It’s the idea that there are an infinite number of parallel universes and that the ones nearest to us are similar and the farther you move away...” She trailed off because he was shaking his head slightly. “Okay, so in this universe, I joined astronomy club, and in another one I didn’t. Both universes are real, it’s just that I live in this one, so we think of this as reality but that doesn’t make the other any less real.”
“What in God’s name is your point, Carter?” he asked.
“I just... sometimes I think there is a Sam out there who did enlist and I wonder if she’s happier. The me who decided to join the military. I get caught up thinking about all the choices I didn’t make.”
“Huh,” he said.
“I could fly planes,” she said. “I just... I could have been happy doing that, I think.”
“You’re pretty smart, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said. It made her feel uncomfortable to talk about it. “You could say that.”
“Not a lot of girl fighter pilots out there,” he said. She frowned at him. He held up his hands in defense. “I’m not saying you wouldn’t have been the best, but it would’ve been a rocky path.”
“Luckily I’m in the women friendly field of physics.” She wrapped her coat around her more tightly. “I’m freezing.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Let’s go.” They stood up, gathered their things. “You learn a lot about astronomy tonight?”
“Oh loads,” she said.
He smiled and walked her to her car.
There was no astronomy club the following week which was just as well, because midterms were coming up and Sam had plenty of homework to keep her occupied. Instead of going home for her longer breaks, she and what seemed like the rest of the student population holed themselves up in the library, working on papers. And if she wasn’t in the library, she was vying for time in the labs. On top of that, T had invited her to attend his football game. Sam tended to not care one way or the other about sporting events, but T had asked so sweetly and she wanted to support him, so she agreed. She also was in no position to turn down a gesture of friendship. She’d made acquaintances in her classes, but the majority of science majors were men who didn’t take her seriously and her only extracurricular besides tutoring thus far was hanging out with a man sixteen years her elder and sort of talking about the stars.
Not that she didn’t look forward to it all week.
Maybe it was nature she liked; the quiet darkness of the desolate mountain side, the fresh smell of evergreens, inky blackness of the night sky far away from city lights. Maybe it had very little to do with the company.
She’d had friendly teachers before and had always gotten along well with educators. She was a good student, quiet and respectful. She’d been friendly enough with her FSU professors and had been particularly close to her English teacher in high school, a woman who’d also lost her mother, so maybe this was just like that. Professor O’Neill was just a dedicated educator who understood the Air Force lifestyle and she was just a student who loved the stars.
“Where are you off to?” her father asked as she put on her old coat.
“Football game,” she answered. “The guy I tutor invited me.”
“Ooh, a date!” he said.
“No, he’s on the team. He’s playing,” she corrected.
“Are you at least meeting some friends?” he pressed.
“Sure,” she said. “Whatever makes you feel better, dad.”
“It wouldn’t hurt to try to make at least one friend, Sam,” he said. “Be a little social.”
“He says as she heads to the football game,” she said dryly.
She stuck her tongue out at him.
“Real nice,” he said. “It’s supposed to get down into the 40’s tonight, take a warmer coat than that.”
“I don’t have a warmer coat,” she complained. “We moved here from Florida.”
Jacob tossed her a hooded sweatshirt from the back of his chair.
“You’ll thank me,” he said. “Try to meet someone new. Join a club.”
“I go to Astronomy club every week!” she said, a note of exasperation creeping into her voice.
“And that’s popular, is it?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said, only a little uneasily. “It’s great.”
“I just want you to be happy, Sam,” he said.
“I’m gonna be late,” she said. “See you later.” And she rushed out the door before he could carry on.
It was cold outside, so at her car, she pulled the sweatshirt over her head and put her coat on over that, the hood hanging out over the collar. Of course, it was an old Air Force sweatshirt - her dad was fairly single minded that way, but it was worn and comfortable. She pulled her hair over one shoulder and secured it with an elastic and then started the car, sitting for just a moment so the engine could get warm.
It’s not that she didn’t like the idea of having friends, it was just that making them seemed so easy for everyone else but for her, it was like a mystery. She’d been better at it once, she thought, but after her mom had died, everything had just seemed too hard and maintaining friendships was certainly at the top of that list. It was too hard to hear the other girls talk about their moms - shopping trips and sleepovers and Christmas presents and all manner of things she would never have again. And then none of it mattered because they had moved, and moved again and then it seemed like every time she was close to having normal friends again, Sam would take a test or turn in a project and get labeled as some sort of science prodigy and who wanted to be friends with the smartest kid in the room?
There were plenty of students at the game, but it wasn’t jam packed which made sense as midterms were just around the bend. She would spend the weekend holed up in the library, working on her physics paper. Her father had gotten permission for her to use both the library at Peterson and the Academy Library to do research. What she really wanted was access to their superior labs, but her father had seemed wary about asking, so she took the library privileges and was grateful for them.
She saw no one she recognized so she decided to just climb the bleachers as high as she could and sit toward the back. The team was already in uniform and on the field, so she didn’t bother to try to find T and talk to him. Finding T wasn’t the issue, she could clearly see which uniformed figure was him. He was tall and broad and stuck out of the line up by sheer size and muscle mass alone.
She found a seat in a mostly deserted row and settled in to spend the next few hours watching something she was not very interested in. But it was good to be out of the house, away from her father’s heavy stare, the one that followed her wishing she was out with the friends she did not actually have.
The game started and she watched, halfheartedly wishing she’d thought to put a book or journal in her bag.
After twenty minutes, she saw someone climbing the bleachers toward her. She looked around to see who he might be trying to reach, but she was really in an empty pocket by herself. Maybe he was just a loner like she was, looking for a little peace in the midst of chaos. He was handsome, in a geeky way. His brown hair was a little too shaggy, like he’d just neglected to have it cut on time, and his eyes were obscured by big, round glasses but he was thin and young and had, what seemed to her, a trustworthy face.
She looked away, wanting to let him pass without her gawking at him.
“Hi,” he said.
He didn’t pass - she looked up at him, squinting against the stadium lighting.
“Hello,” she said uneasily.
“I’m Daniel,” he said.
“Sam,” she offered, sticking out a hand. He shook it. His fingers were colder than hers. He had on a coat but, like her, it didn’t seem quite warm enough for the quickly approaching winter.
“It’s nice to meet you,” he said.
“Uh, likewise,” she offered. “Did you... I mean, these seats aren’t saved if you’re planning on meeting people or...”
“No, no,” he said, smiling. “I, uh... I knew... well, I’m sitting over there,” he said, pointing to a few sections over, a more densely populated section by far.
“So then why are you here?” she asked.
“To get you,” he said.
She scooted ever so slightly away.
“This is not going well,” he said, running his fingers through his hair. “Okay, we have a mutual friend and he saw you and said ‘Danny, go introduce yourself and get her to come over here so she’s not so pathetic and alone.’”
“You’re right,” she said. “This is not going well.”
“Okay,” he said. “Hi, I’m Daniel. My friend Jack and I are sitting over there, would you like to join us?”
“Jack?” she asked.
“Jack O’Neill,” he said. “I swear he put me up to this, I swear it.”
“Oh!” she said. “Professor O’Neill.”
“Yes,” he said.
“He saw me from way over there?” she asked.
“Apparently,” he said.
“And he sent you?” she asked, still mildly confused.
“Okay, this was a disaster, so I’m just going to leave now,” he said, and turned away.
“Wait,” she said. “I’ll go, I’ll go.” She stood and followed him down the steps. “I’m sorry, I’m bad at meeting people.”
“Unlike me, who is a shining beacon of hope for all, obviously,” he said. She laughed.
It was hard to talk and navigate the narrow aisles and large groups of people, so she just followed him nervously. If nothing else, she’d be able to tell her father that she’d made a new friend.
Finally, she spotted Professor O’Neill who half rose to greet them. They upset the whole bench of people who had to stand to let them pass.
“Carter,” he said.
“Professor,” she said. “My knight in shining armor.”
“You looked lonely,” he said.
There wasn’t a lot of space so she sort of wedged herself between O’Neill and Daniel.
“Are you a big football fan?” Daniel asked, not so subtly trying to suss out why Sam had come to a game by herself.
“No,” she said ruefully. “But I was invited to watch one of my students play. Number 13.”
“Lucky 13!” O’Neill said loudly.
“So you’re a graduate fellow,” Daniel said.
“What?” she frowned. “No, I’m a sophomore.”
“You said you had students?”
“I tutor for the university,” she clarified.
“Oh,” Daniel said. “That makes more sense. I’m a graduate teaching fellow. It seemed highly unlikely there was another GTF I hadn’t met.”
“13 is a helluva player,” O’Neill said to her.
“Yeah,” she said. “He’s really nice. His algebra is getting better, too.”
She was thigh to thigh, shoulder to shoulder with O’Neill. He smelled like his wool coat and slightly spicy from what she suspected was aftershave. She’d sat close to him before but always in darkness and it was hard not to stare now at his olive skin, white sideburns, the way his bottom lip was moist and thick.
She tore her gaze back to the game and then glanced at Daniel who was looking right at her with an unreadable expression.
“What do you teach?” she asked to break the silence.
“I study history and archeology,” he said. “They have me teaching ancient history for freshmen, though.”
“Danny is a transfer like you,” O’Neill offered, his eyes still on the field.
“I was in Boston,” Daniel said. “But I think the west is a little more forgiving of fresh theories and perspectives.”
O’Neill snorted but said nothing. Sam decided not to ask and was saved by the crowd erupting into a cheer.
“13. Helluva player,” O’Neill shouted while clapping.
Feeling slightly guilty, Sam focused on the field like she’d come to do. As she watched T, she realized Professor O’Neill was right - T was gifted. Despite his sheer size, he was fast and light on his feet and seemed to dance past the players of the other team with ease.
“I’ll introduce you, if you want,” she joked to O’Neill who smiled softly.
“Smart and well-connected,” he said. “Watch out, world.”
“T is a poet,” Sam said, leaning back to include Daniel.
“You don’t say,” Daniel said, his forehead wrinkling.
“Ugh,” O’Neill said. “The only reason Daniel even watches football is because he sees it as some sort of anthropological study on late 20th century America.”
“Is that a bad thing?” Sam asked.
“I knew you two would like each other,” O’Neill said. “Couple of geeks.”
“You teach astronomy,” Sam said.
“The Fonz of physics,” O’Neill said. “Cool.”
Daniel and Sam both rolled their eyes.
It was halftime and the cheerleaders came out to only reinforce Sam’s choice to not even try out for the squad.
“They must be freezing,” Daniel said.
“Yes,” O’Neill said. “How worrying.”
“I know that one,” Daniel said, sounding suddenly nervous. “Dark hair, third from the left. She took my class last semester and now she pops up all the time and tries to make conversation.”
“She has a crush on you,” Sam said.
“She’s a pretty girl but she’s kind of insane,” Daniel said.
“Is she dangerous?” Sam asked.
“Just relentless,” Daniel said.
“You could use a little excitement,” O’Neill said. And then, making Sam jump a little, flung his arm out toward the field and yelled, “Bullshit!” He scowled. “Damn ref is half blind.”
“How do you and the professor know one another?” Sam asked Daniel. Daniel smiled softly, indulgently.
“I thought you knew,” Daniel said quietly. “He likes to pick up strays.”
After the game, Sam didn’t bother to try to find T. She could congratulate him on the win when she saw him at their next tutoring session.
“I should go,” Sam said as they approached the parking lot. “I have class tomorrow.”
“We were going to go get some dinner,” Daniel said. “You should come.”
“I don’t know,” she hesitated.
“Carter, we’re out later than this every Wednesday,” O’Neill said. “Come get some pizza. On me.”
“Thanks, sir,” she said. “I’m parked over here.”
“I’ll drive,” O’Neill said. “Drop you at your car, after. It’s already gonna be hell getting out of the student section after the game. I’m over in the faculty lot.”
“Sure,” she said. They cut across campus. Daniel chattered about an article he’d read equating football to the Roman Colosseum, but it seemed like a tired argument between them because O’Neill didn’t bite. Sam and Daniel waited outside while O’Neill ran into his office to get his briefcase.
“Have you been friends long?” she asked.
“Less than a year,” Daniel said. “He doesn’t make friends easily which is why I was surprised when he started talking about you.”
“Oh,” Sam said, glad for the darkness and the cold to hide the blood rushing to her face.
“I know, it seems weird,” Daniel said sympathetically. “Why doesn’t he have friends his own age, right? But I think he just is the type of man to see something in someone that he likes and not let go, no matter what the circumstance.”
“That happens a lot, I think. When you have a more... eclectic military background,” Sam said. “My father knows him, actually, but I wouldn’t call them friends, exactly.” She frowned, feeling a pang of guilt. “Maybe they could be, though. It might be good for both of them.”
“Your father is military?”
“Air Force,” she said.
“I think something bad happened to Jack,” Daniel said now, lowering his voice even though O’Neill had not yet returned. “I think he’s still licking some wound and that’s why he’s like this. Maybe your father knows what that is?”
“Maybe,” she said. “But I don’t ask for classified information. There’s no point.”
“Maybe it’s not classified?” Daniel asked, but they were forced to drop the subject because O’Neill returned.
“You all don’t mind a little drive, though, right?” O’Neill asked. “I don’t want to go to someplace swamped with kids.”
Sam wanted to point out the irony of him trying to avoid students when his company were both students but she didn’t.
Sam had seen O’Neill’s truck before but had never been in it. He made Daniel sit in the back and turned the heater on while they drove. She liked the truck, like to sit up high.
“This must be nice when it snows,” she commented.
“Better than your little Honda is gonna be,” O’Neill said.
“My dad has a Jeep,” she said. “We might swap for the winter.”
“What happened to his old Corvette? He was so proud of that thing, he jabbered about it constantly,” O’Neill asked.
“Oh, uh, he sold it a while back,” she said. “He had two kids. Wasn’t practical.” In fact, he had sold it just after their mother died to help pay for the funeral expenses and talking about it made a lump rise in Sam’s throat.
“Brother or sister?” Daniel asked.
“Older brother. He is in California,” Sam said. “I live with my dad in base housing.”
“Do you like it?” Daniel asked.
“I don’t know... I mean, I’m used to it, so it doesn’t matter, I guess,” Sam said. “It’s free.”
“I live in a little tiny house with a roommate,” Daniel said. “Better than the dorms but not quite home. Jack on the other hand has a great house.”
O’Neill grunted and slowed for a red light.
“It’s kind of on the edge of town and it’s really secluded and quiet,” Daniel said.
“Not that quiet,” Jack said. “You want quiet, go to my cabin in Minnesota. No one around for miles.”
“I don’t know if I need that much solitude,” Sam said. “But it sounds nice.”
“Oh, we’re here,” Daniel said.
By the end of the night, Sam was full of pizza and soda. O’Neill and Daniel had offered to split their pitcher of beer with her but she had declined. She was underage, and anyway, she had midterms. No sense rocking the boat when she needed to spend all her free time for the next two weeks studying and taking tests.
Daniel’s house was on the way so they dropped him off and then headed back to get Sam to her car.
“I hope this was okay,” O’Neill said. “Daniel could stand a friend like you.”
“Bookish?” she asked.
“Nah,” he said. “I mean, you are but you’re also pretty normal. You kinda straddle that line between geeks like him and cool guys like me.”
“I liked him,” she said. “Thanks.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Carter,” he said.
She got out of the truck and watched him drive away. If Daniel said Jack needed a friend like Sam and Jack said Daniel needed a friend like Sam, it made her wonder what it was that she needed.
Sam received a letter from the school informing her that she had to attend a disciplinary hearing.
“Huh?” she asked and read it again, but it was clear that she had to report to the dean of student’s office in three days.
She showed her father who frowned.
“Did you do anything wrong?” he asked.
“I’m just asking, Sam, I don’t think you’re a delinquent.”
“No!” she said. “Well, I mean, I don’t think so. I can’t imagine what would...”
Professor O’Neill. Maybe someone had seen them together? Maybe someone thought that her grades in astronomy were only good because she was fraternizing with her professor. She bit her lip. She would have to look it up in the student by-laws but they were both adults so it shouldn’t matter.
And she wasn’t fraternizing with him. There was that. She saw him in class and for astronomy club and that one time with Daniel at the football game and pizza parlor but that was hardly untoward and they hadn’t even discussed class or her grades.
“No,” she said. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“You want me to go with you?” he asked.
“You’d have to take off work,” she said shaking her head. “Don’t.”
He looked concerned. “If you’re sure. I know you’re an adult now but...”
“No, stop,” she said. “Please let’s not talk about how grown up I am now.”
“Fine,” he says.
She didn’t accept her father’s help, but she did bring the letter to astronomy club the next week. She beat him to the trailhead but he was only a few minutes behind her.
“Too cold for this,” O’Neill said, coming toward her. She hadn’t bothered with her telescope or the blanket. She just perched against the fence in her father’s hoodie, her coat, and a pair of gloves. She had the letter in her hand.
“We’re gonna have to relocate soon. It’ll snow before too long.”
“Relocate to where?” she asked.
“Well there are a couple options for observatories around here,” he said. “And other places.”
His answer was vague but she didn’t push because she had something bigger on her mind.
“I got this in the mail,” she said, thrusting the letter out to him. “I’m not sure what it means.”
He took it, unfolded at it, squinted for a moment.
“Hell, I can’t read this. Come on, let’s sit in the truck.”
She followed him, apprehension building in her chest. She walked around, climbed into the truck and was grateful for the warmth that still lingered from his drive. He started the engine and turned on the dome light. She wanted to start defending herself, say that she’d done nothing wrong and that it had nothing to do with how they were sitting alone in his truck in the inky darkness of the middle of nowhere.
“This is serious,” he said.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said.
“I think I know what this is about,” he said.
“Oh god, sir, I didn’t think it was like that, I swear,” she blurted, cheeks burning with heat.
“What?’” he asked, brow furrowed. “No, I just meant at the last departmental meeting... you have Albertson for your physics class, yes?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Yes.”
“Yeah, he brought up plagiarism at the last department meeting. Went through this whole show of making sure everyone knew the correct procedure if you suspected a student of plagiarism. I thought he’d caught some kid... but Carter...”
“I didn’t plagiarize!” she exclaimed hotly. “I would never.”
“I believe you,” he said. “But think for a minute. Was there something in your assignment that might have seemed suspicious?”
“I cited every source,” she said. “I mean, I did a lot of my research at the academy library because they have a much broader selection of physics journals but I cited each and every one.”
“Howard Albertson is a total blowhard,” O’Neill said. “He probably didn’t understand your paper and therefore thought it was wrong.”
“It’s just gonna be my word against his,” she said. “I’m a new transfer and he’s tenure track. What am I going to do?”
“I’m going to come with you,” he said. “If anything, I can vouch for you character and your work in my class.”
“I want you to bring a copy of the paper if you have it.”
“It’s handwritten. I gave him my only typed copy,” she said.
“That’s even better. Bring that, bring your notes, bring whatever sources you have. If you can check them out of the library, do it,” he said.
“Okay,” she said. “This is so embarrassing.”
“It’s embarrassing for him, not you,” he said. “It’ll be fine.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said.
“No sweat,” he said.
“I’m not sure I really feel like stargazing tonight,” she admitted.
“Me either,” he said. “In fact, next week, let’s just meet on campus and decide where to go. These roads will be getting too treacherous for your car soon.”
“Thanks again,” she said.
“Thank me when it’s over,” he said.
The day of hearing, she woke up nervous. Her stomach churned and her little bedroom was freezing. Her father had given her a space heater, but it was loud and made her room smell like burning, so she’d just tossed another quilt on the bed. Now, she was reluctant to get out of bed, but she had Chemistry and then a tutoring session, her hearing, and then class with professor O’Neill.
She sighed, pushed off the covers to the frigid air. She stepped into her slippers and threw on her robe and went into the kitchen. It was late enough that her father was gone, but he’d left her coffee in the pot and a note of good luck. He said she could call if she changed her mind and wanted him to come, but she wouldn’t. She moved to the coffee pot and saw through the window that there was a layer of snow covering everything.
“Great,” she muttered.
She dressed warmly and french braided her hair so it wouldn’t get messy under her wool cap. She had packed up all her notes from her physics paper the night before, and she carefully rechecked everything before she put it into her bag and went out the door.
She saw the Jeep in the drive, the Honda nowhere in sight. For a moment she panicked - she had school books in there, but when she opened the passenger’s side door, her books had been relocated to the seat in front of her.
Chemistry passed in a blur and when she met T, she was distracted enough that he asked what was the matter and she admitted about her hearing.
“That’s bull,” he said. “You are smart and moral.”
“Thanks, T,” she said.
“Truth will prevail,” he assured her. “You want me to go with you?”
“You’d do that?” she asked. It couldn’t hurt, having the star football player on her side.
“In a heartbeat,” he said. “When is it?”
“After this,” she said. “Three o’clock.”
“I’ll go,” he said. And he did. After their session, he went with her to Professor O’Neill’s office. Sam found O’Neill and Daniel waiting for them.
“Hey,” Daniel said. “Jack told me... I hope you don’t mind, but I thought it couldn’t hurt to have another friendly face.”
“Thanks,” she said. “Really. This is T.”
“Helluva player,” O’Neill said, shaking his hand. He turned to Sam. “You ready, Carter?”
“I guess,” she said.
“You’ll be fine,” he said.
And so, with O’Neill, Daniel, and T at her side, she went to her hearing.
O’Neill had been right. The Dean was there but so was her physics professor who gave her a small, sympathetic smile like he was sorry it had to come to this.
“Howard,” O’Neill said.
“Jack,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
“I have Carter for astronomy,” he said. “Thought she could use a little support.”
“Well,” Albertson said, clearly flustered. “That’s a little unorthodox.”
“I’m Dean Davis.” The Dean extended his hand to Sam. “I’m sorry to meet under the circumstance.”
“There are a couple students here to vouch for her too, Mark,” O’Neill said to the Dean. “Just so you know. They’re in your waiting room.”
“We’re just here to sort some things out,” the Dean said. “Have a seat.”
“Miss Carter,” Professor Albertson said. “I wanted to ask you some questions about your paper.”
“No, you want to ask her one question,” O’Neill said. “Carter, did you write the paper?”
“Yes,” she said.
“There,” O’Neill said. “Meeting over.”
“Meeting not over,” the Dean said. “Now, Miss Carter, I read the paper and there is no doubt that it is well-written and very advanced.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“Professor Albertson simply informed me that it was his opinion that his sophomore level physics students do not generally produce papers of this caliber.”
“That may be,” Sam said. “But I wrote that paper. I, uh, I brought my notes and my research and my first draft. I very clearly cited my sources.” She pulled the folder from her bag and handed it across the desk to the dean who took it, glanced it over, and handed it to Professor Albertson who took several minutes to leaf through each page.
“See, here,” he said triumphantly. “These three journals aren’t even in our library.”
“Well that’s true,” Sam said. “But the Air Force Academy library subscribes to them and that’s where I did the majority of my research. My father is a Colonel at Peterson.”
“Ah,” the Dean said. “Well that clears up your main concern, doesn’t it Howard?”
“It does not,” Professor Albertson said. “I have colleagues that haven’t produced a paper this insightful, I still have trouble believing that this teenage girl did so.”
“Excuse me?” Sam yelped, offended.
“You’re jealous, you has been,” O’Neill said, standing up and towering over Professor Albertson. “You have finally got a student worth her weight in this subject and you don’t know what the hell to do with her!”
“Jack-” the Dean said.
“No,” O’Neill said. “Sam Carter is smart and dedicated and inventive and this university should be thrilled to have this sort of academic attending their institution but instead you’re treating her like a criminal and it’s wrong!”
“Sir,” Sam said.
“She could be the future of science and you want to kick her out because she wrote something over your head, Howard. That is selfish and pathetic and sad.”
“Alright, enough,” Dean Davis said. “Sit down, Jack.”
“Look,” Sam said. “Dean you have my transcript and my school records. You can look up my academic career and accolades yourself. My IQ is... above average. All that will be in my file. But you’re right, I did do something wrong here. I wrote a paper that went above and beyond the required assignment because I felt that Professor Albertson’s syllabus was narrow sighted and tired. And for that, I’m sorry.”
Professor Albertson’s mouth fell open, but the Dean’s lips twitched like he was holding back a smile.
“I think we’ve got this all cleared up,” the Dean said. “My apologies.”
“Him too,” O’Neill said. “He apologizes, too.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Carter. I was just trying to uphold the rules of this University,” he said.
“I understand,” she said.
“I got a grad student and the football star out there waiting to say how great Carter is, you wanna hear it?” O’Neill asked, obviously still angry.
“You’re free to go,” the Dean said. “Jack, why don’t you stay for a moment.”
Sam took her notes and her bag and stepped out of the room.
“Our turn?” Daniel asked.
“No,” Sam said, smiling shakily. “I was cleared.”
“That’s great!” T said, clapping her back. She felt it in her teeth.
“I think Professor O’Neill defended me a little too fervently,” she said.
“He can get like that when he believes in something,” Daniel said. “Or someone.”
She looked at the closed office door and willed any and all drama far away from her life.
“Sam?” her father called. “Phone!”
She came out into the kitchen where the phone was on the wall. Her father grinned. “It’s a gentleman caller.”
“Please don’t ever say that again,” she said, taking the phone. “Hello?”
“It’s Daniel,” he said.
“Hi,” she said. “I thought you were going out of town for break?”
“I am, I’m leaving in a couple hours,” he said. “But I stopped by Jack’s house and he told me he’s not doing anything for Thanksgiving.”
“Oh,” she said. “Well he’s kind of private. I guess that’s his choice.”
“No,” Daniel said. “Well, I mean, yes, it’s up to him, but I just worry about him being all alone on a holiday.”
“What do you want me to do, Daniel?” she asked. “He’s a grown man.”
“Well what are you doing for the holiday?” he asked.
“My brother is coming home and I’m cooking with my dad,” she said.
“You said your dad and Jack were old friends,” Daniel said. “Why not invite him?”
“Don’t you think that could be a little inappropriate?” she asked, twirling the cord around her finger nervously. “He already got that lecture about getting over involved in his students after the hearing.”
“That was crap and you know it, that was Howard Albertson being an embarrassed little shit.”
“It was,” he said. “Anyway, please think about it. Please.”
“I don’t even have his phone number,” she said.
“You got a pen?” he asked. She found one in the junk drawer and wrote the number on her hand.
“I have to ask my family,” she said. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll see.”
“Thanks,” he said.
“Have fun,” she said.
She hung up and turned to face her father nervously. Jacob was standing at the counter, had stayed to eavesdrop on her conversation.
“Something you’d like to ask, daughter?” he said.
She’d still not told him that her professor was the man he’d spoken to in the hallway so many months ago. It had just turned into this strange secret that she kept, but Daniel was right. It would be kind of her to invite him and and even if he said no, at least Professor O’Neill would know that she cared.
“So, remember how you ran into that old Air Force buddy of yours that day we went to the Academy when we first moved here?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “Jack. Why?”
“He actually teaches at my school, too,” she said. “I’m actually in one of his classes.”
“No kidding,” he said. “You never mentioned that.”
“Didn’t I?” she said. “Ah, well, it wasn’t that... important I guess.”
“Huh?” she asked.
“Which class is his?” her father said.
“Astronomy,” she said.
“And the club?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Anyway, I guess he’s all alone for the holiday? So I thought maybe we could invite him?”
“You thought,” Jacob said.
“Daniel thought. Daniel knows him better than I do, so he thought it would be nice,” Sam said. “I think it would be nice, too. I mean he’s your old friend, right?”
“Sure,” Jacob said. “I mean, the more the merrier, right?”
“Yeah,” Sam said, relieved. “Right.”
But still, she waited for her father to go to work the next day before she called him. Part of her hoped she’d get a machine and the other half was excited to hear his voice. It rang three times and she was about to panic about having to leave a message when she got a gruff, “O’Neill.”
“Hi,” she blurted. “Uh, Professor, it’s Sam Carter.”
“Carter,” he said, his voice warming up. “What a surprise.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Sorry to bother you at home.”
“No,” he said. “I’ll be sure to blame Daniel for any intrusion.”
“He did... let me know... I know it’s none of my business what you do for your holiday, but if you wanted to come have Thanksgiving dinner with me and my father and my brother, you’d be more than welcome,” she said, scrunching her eyes closed. There was enough of a silence that she rushed on. “I’m sure dad would be happy to catch up with you.”
“Uh,” he said.
She let her shoulders sag down, prepared for his rejection.
“What the hell,” he said. “What time?”
“Great!” she said. “Great, uh, three?”
She gave him directions to her house.
“Can I bring something?” he asked.
“Just... you know, if you like something special that’s not traditional,” she said. “So you can feel at home.”
“See you Thursday, Carter,” he said and the line went dead.
There was no reason to be nervous about it - she spent plenty of time with Professor O’Neill but it was different knowing it would be under the gaze of her father. Mark coming home also added strain - he’d been distant since they’d lost her mother and he’d only agreed to come home for Thanksgiving if he could spend Christmas in California with his girlfriend and her family.
She spent Wednesday morning prepping for the meal - chopping vegetables and making pies. She was in charge of the sides and desserts, her dad was in charge of the bird. In the early afternoon, she braved the icy and crowded roads for the long drive to Denver to pick up her brother. There was some traffic, but she’d left early enough to park and meet him at his gate.
She could tell he hadn’t expected it because he walked right past her with his bag on his shoulder and she had to say, “Mark!” loudly before he disappeared. He turned and saw her and smiled.
“Hey,” he said, when they got out of the stream of people. They hugged. “Didn’t recognize you - your hair is so long.”
“I know,” she said. “I think about just cutting it all off.”
“Nah,” he said. “Where’s dad?”
“He had to work,” she said.
“He should be home when we get there,” she pushed forward, not wanting to get in the middle of Mark’s resentment toward their father. “Traffic is gonna suck.”
“Yeah, it’s crazy out there,” he said.
“You have a coat?” she asked. “It’s been snowing.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said, and pulled a sweatshirt out of his bag and put it on.
“That’s it?” she asked.
“It was 75 degrees in San Diego,” he said.
“Dork,” she said. “Freeze to death, then.”
He was indeed miserable when he walked out of the airport.
“Who would choose this?” he moaned hopping up and down while she unlocked the car.
“It’s not so bad,” she said. “Fall was really nice.”
The drive was slow, traffic still steady and dense on the interstate. Halfway home it started snowing again. She and her brother made small talk about school and Mark’s girlfriend. He kept nudging the heater higher until she was sweating under her coat but he held his fingers pressed to the vent.
“You have a boyfriend?” he asked, switching hands and holding his warm fingers against his scruffy cheeks.
“Haha,” she said.
“I was just hoping for a buffer between the Colonel and I for dinner,” Mark said.
“Well,” Sam said. “You may have that.”
“So you have a girlfriend,” he said.
“I’m not gay!” she said. “For the hundredth time.”
“One of my professors had nowhere to go so I invited him,” she said.
“This is like that time you brought home that kitten and that squirrel with the broken tail and the bird you found on the porch,” he said.
“No,” she said. “Dad knows him too.”
“Little sister,” Mark continued on. “Always collecting strays.”
It snowed a lot in the night and when Sam got up, there was a silent layer of pure white across both cars and the yard. Her dad had the whole day off; Mark was asleep on the couch and in a matter of hours, Professor O’Neill would be in her house.
The kitchen was already crowded - the counters filled with the pumpkin and apple pies, the large pan for the turkey. Last year, they’d barbequed the turkey in the backyard and it had been warm enough to eat outside but there would be none of that this year.
Sam started the coffee brewing and tied back her hair and washed her face and hands while she waited for it to finish. There was plenty of prep work still to do - everything to be chopped for the stuffing, potatoes to peel, green beans to be snapped for the casserole. They’d bought rolls this year instead of making them from scratch like her mother used to do. Her father had never learned how and so the recipe had died along with her.
Her father woke up for long enough to dress the turkey and get it in the oven and then he went back to sleep. He didn’t get a lot of time off and he liked to sleep in when he could. Mark woke up enough to put on the parade on the television but never left the couch. She didn’t mind. She didn’t need them underfoot. She wanted all her prep work done so she had time to shower and set the table with her parent’s wedding china. The delicate dishes that always seemed to survive every cross country move.
Mark and her father avoided each other well - years of practice - and she didn’t actually seem them standing next to one another until she summoned them to put the leaf in their little dining table. They did the chore without complaint and then Mark drifted away again.
“Proud of you, Sammy,” her father said before going out to shovel snow from the sidewalk and driveway. His words made her feel worse, not better, like it was up to her to keep their family together and she wasn’t quite managing it.
She showered but wore jeans with a long-sleeved shirt and a flannel over it. All her nice clothes seemed to be for warmer weather. She’d had grand plans of blow drying her hair and maybe even wearing a little makeup but she was in the kitchen basting the turkey when the doorbell rang.
Her father beat her to the door and she heard him say, “Jack, welcome!” as she closed the oven.
“Thank you, Jacob,” O’Neill said, stepping into the house and shaking hands with her father.
“This is my son, Mark,” Jacob said. Mark waved but did not get up which obviously was about to set her father off, so Sam stepped in.
“Hi, sir,” she said.
“Carter,” he said and then, realizing he was surrounded by Carters, said, “Uh.”
She suppressed her smile. Best not to start laughing at him the moment he arrived.
“Here,” he said and handed her a can of cranberry sauce. She took it. “You said to bring what I liked and not everybody likes the jelly kind.”
“Thank you,” she said. She left her father to make the appropriate small talk. O’Neill hung his coat and stuck his hands in his pockets, unsure of where to go next.
“Beer?” her father asked.
“Won’t say no,” O’Neill said.
Mark relented control of the television and her father turned it to the football game which seemed to please O’Neill.
“Mark,” Sam said. “Will you help set the table?”
Mark was a baseball fan, not football, and had no interest in either the Cowboys or the Eagles and therefore had no excuse not to help.
“Dad,” Sam said. “Turkey time.” Getting the bird out of the oven was her father’s job. She directed Mark to load up the table with food once it was set and hurried to finish dishing everything up. When she raised her head, O’Neill was hovering at the kitchen door, watching her.
“Looking good,” he said.
She handed him the bowl with his cranberry sauce and said, “We’ll see.”
But it was good and Sam couldn’t help be proud of herself as she watched everyone shoveling down food.
“Sam says you really stood up for her at that hearing,” her dad said, breaking the silence with no great amount of grace. Sam’s fork stopped just before her mouth and she glanced at O’Neill who finished chewing with a thoughtful expression.
“Yup,” he said finally. “She didn’t do a thing wrong, so...”
Mark looked curious, but not enough to break his huffy silence.
“Not every teacher looks after their students like that,” her dad said. Sam put her fork down, intent on defending O’Neill but her father went on. “Thanks, Jack.”
“Don’t get me wrong, Jacob, your daughter has a brain worth defending, but I was more interested in humiliating that jackass physics professor,” O’Neill said. Mark snorted back his laughter - Sam quickly resumed eating. “This is good, Carter,” O’Neill said, casting about for a new subject.
“Thanks,” she said.
“My wife was quite the cook and taught Sam a lot,” Jacob said.
“I, uh, was sorry to hear about that,” O’Neill said sincerely. Sam was surprised but realized she shouldn’t be. The Air Force was a small place, especially for those who’d served together.
“You too,” Jacob said. “I mean, I assume? What was your wife’s name?”
“Sara,” O’Neill said. He had no real expression now but Sam suspected that was to hide his discomfort.
“Divorce is the plague of the black ops,” Jacob said.
“Dad,” Sam pleaded, desperate for him to stop. “I don’t think that is any of our business.”
“What?” Jacob said. “Just making conversation.”
“Shut up about it,” Sam said.
“It’s all right,” O’Neill said. “We’re separated, technically, so I guess I haven’t fallen prey to that curse quite yet.”
Sam couldn’t say why, exactly, but her stomach plummeted. It felt like something bad was happening in order for something worse to occur.
“So she has your boy?” Jacob said. “I think she sent Christmas cards to the whole unit a few years ago.”
“No,” O’Neill said. The word rang hollowly through the warm room but it was a no that they all recognized. It was an empty no, a no of loss, a no that meant someone who had been there before would never be there again.
“Oh,” Jacob said.
“Yeah,” O’Neill said.
He didn’t stay for long, after that.
She decided to focus on finals. She was smart, but she still benefited from studying and so she went to the library instead of home between classes when school started up again. This close to finals, finding a table could be a little tricky, but there was a corner up by a window on the third floor that was usually empty because it was by a window that didn’t close very well so it was always cold, but Sam accepted that challenge. The cold would keep her awake and focused.
That is where Daniel found her, bundled up with her nose practically against her Biology notes. It was the subject she had to work the hardest at - not because she didn’t understand it but because her interest in it was minimal. Too much real life, not enough theory to suit her. She was passing her lab but she worried about the written exam so she was pouring over the human anatomy chapter.
A cup of coffee entered her field of view. She looked up to see Daniel attached to it.
“Hi,” she whispered.
“Hello,” he said. “You’re sitting at the reject table.”
“Ah,” she said. “But at least I have a table.” There were more than a few people sitting against walls on the floor or in between shelves, surrounded by books.
“And pneumonia if you stay here much longer,” he said.
“Shhh!” A girl from a few tables down was glaring at them.
“Take a break,” he said, dropping his voice. “Come eat dinner with me.”
“I don’t know,” she said, but he pouted for a minute and she was rather cold, so she packed up her bag and followed him out of the library. Snow crunched under their feet as they made their way outside.
“Where do you want to go?” she asked.
“I live close,” he said. “Want a home cooked meal?”
“Sure,” she said. “If you’re willing.”
“I’ll even let you keep studying while it cooks if you have to,”he said.
“I think I can probably take an hour off,” she said. “This one time.” He laughed. “I can drive us if you want, and then I’ll have my car?”
“It’s not far,” he said. “But okay.”
It was really close - four blocks from the north side of campus but Sam knew she’d be glad to have her car later when she had to make her way home.
“You live alone?” she asked as she drove.
“No,” he said. “I have a roommate, but he’s basically lives with his girlfriend. He just comes by to pick up mail and pay rent. He’s moving out after next semester actually, because he’s graduating. So I feel like I live alone which is good, because it’s a little place.”
And little it was - two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room, and a bathroom. She could see it had a deck off the side which would be nice for the summer, but it was covered in snow. His path was a little on the treacherous side, like no one had shoveled or salted since the last snow.
“Careful,” he said. She had a wistful pang of missing Florida, a place she had never particularly cared for. They’d lived other warm places, like San Diego, but even the desert got cold at night whereas Florida could always be counted on for a balmy, tropical warmth. Or a monsoon.
Inside Daniel’s house was warmer and filled with second hand furniture. There was a little television in the corner but the living room was filled mostly with books. It opened right into the kitchen where there was a little table and then a hallway that led to, what she assumed, the bathroom and bedrooms. It was little and cozy and while the base provided them with decent houses, they never really had any character like this little bungalow.
“It’s lovely,” she said, unwinding her scarf from her neck and taking off her snow caked boots.
“Yeah, I kind of lucked into finding it.” He flashed her a grin. “I lived in this tiny apartment in Boston where the heating was this centralized radiator system that I had no control over so they would just crank it up in the winter and it would always be like 80 degrees. It was hell on my books. No air in the summer... Colorado felt like paradise when I first moved here.
“I like it here, too,” she said. “I’ve moved around a lot but this is the first place that has felt like it could be home. Like if my father got new orders, I would consider staying on.”
“You have to at least finish school here, right?” he said.
“I like it,” she said. “I could’ve finished school in Florida too, but it’s hard not having family around.”
Daniel smiled at her sadly. “I know.”
“What about your family?” she asked. “Did you spend Thanksgiving with them?”
“No,” he said. “I spent Thanksgiving in New York at a museum helping unpack the Egyptian artifacts for the new exhibit. My parents died when I was young.”
“Geez,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he said.
“My mom died when I was 12,” she said. “I know it’s not okay, Daniel.”
“It is what it is,” Daniel said.
She sat at the kitchen table while he moved around the kitchen - filling a big pot with water to boil and pulling the makings of a salad out of the refrigerator.
“Speaking of,” she said. “I think I figured out what’s up with Professor O’Neill.”
“Wait, what?” he said.
“He came for Thanksgiving,” she said. “It was... interesting.”
“Well I learned that he’s married, for one,” she said, the words coming out with a little more venom than she meant to release. Daniel froze, his brow furrowed over his glasses.
“No he isn’t,” he said. “I’ve been to his house.”
“They’re separated,” she said.
“That’s not really married,” he replied.
“Only in the legally binding sense of the word.”
“Also, I think he had a son.”
“Had,” Daniel said. “As in, he lives with the mom?”
“As in, had,” she said. “He didn’t say it but I think he had a son and his son died.”
“Oh my god,” Daniel said. “That’s awful.”
“And my dad just sort of pried it out of him and ruined the whole day and he left before pie and I feel terrible about it,” Sam said. “I haven’t seen him or called him to apologize and we’re supposed to have astronomy club on Wednesday but it’s too snowy and I haven’t heard from him and he must just be so sick to death of me, God, I’m so stupid.”
“Whoa, hey, whoa,” he said. “You’re definitely not stupid and it’s not your fault, you didn’t know.”
“I know that my father has the tact of a bull in a china shop,” she said.
“I bullied you into inviting him in the first place,” Daniel said. “Jack likes you, Sam. He likes smart, dedicated people who make him feel like his career has meaning.”
“Why doesn’t he have friends his own age?” she demanded, recalling their earlier conversation.
“Making friends is hard,” Daniel said. “I guess he looks for qualities not specific to a generation.”
“Or maybe he’s just stunted emotionally,” she said.
“Or maybe you’re just mad because you learned your crush has a wife,” Daniel snapped back, defensively.
Sam stared at him, feeling trapped and hot and hurt.
“I’m not hungry,” she said. “I have to go.”
“Sam wait,” he said. “I’m sorry, wait a minute!”
But she shoved her feet into her boots and walked out the door without lacing them. She slammed her car door closed and drove away while he stood in his open door, watching her helplessly.
“You okay, kiddo?” her dad asked. It was late, long past when she was usually in bed, but she’d made herself hot chocolate and was mindlessly watching the television while snow fell outside.
“Fine,” she said.
“You seem fine,” her dad said. “Convincingly fine.”
“Did you want something?” she asked.
“Do you have time to take on another tutoring student?” he asked.
“Yeah, I still only have T,” she said.
“Still? It’s almost been a whole semester.”
“People don’t want a girl teaching them math,” she said, looking back at the television dejectedly.
“People are stupid, Sam. The vast majority are total morons,” he said.
She felt only slightly better.
“Well, I have the name of an academy student who is looking for a math tutor and I think you should do it.” He handed her a slip of paper.
“After finals,” she said, glancing at it and shoving it into her pocket. Cadet C. Mitchell could wait.
“But I can tell him you’ll do it?” her dad pressed.
“Sure,” she said and turned up the television pointedly enough that her father walked away.
Wednesday came - Daniel hadn’t called and astronomy club was on hold due to weather, she supposed, so all she had to look forward to was her last session with T. He only needed the one math class to graduate and wouldn’t need her to tutor him anymore. He didn’t really need her now - if he did well on his final and she thought that he would, he’d pass with at least a B for sure.
“You okay, blondie?” T asked while they were finishing up. “You’re usually running off to nerd club about now.”
“Oh,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m gonna keep doing that, actually.”
“What?” he said. “You love it!”
“I’m the only one in it and I don’t think Professor O’Neill really even wants to do it, it’s like this huge burden on him so I’m just going to let him off the hook, I guess.”
“I think you’re wrong,” T said.
“Oh really?” she asked.
“Why is that?” she asked.
“Because your professor has been loitering over there watching us for the last five minutes,” T said, pointing behind her. She turned so fast her chair screeched against the floor. O’Neill was sitting in one of the chairs. He gave her a little wave.
“Oh,” she said faintly.
“Want me to go get rid of him?” T asked.
“No,” she said. “No, it’s okay, thanks.” She hugged him and he went off with a thin, bouncy girl with black pigtails who’d been waiting for him by a rack of magazines. Sam shouldered her bag and walked up to O’Neill.
“Ready?” he asked.
“For what?” she said. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s time for astronomy club,” he said.
“I figured, you know... finals and all,” she said. “Busy, busy.”
“Last one of the semester,” he said. “You wanna skip it?”
“No,” she said. “I guess I don’t.”
“Come along then, Carter,” he said.
She followed him in the Jeep away from campus, through city streets. Instead of turning out of Colorado Springs and getting on the interstate, they drove into a more secluded residential section. The truck pulled into a driveway and, surprised, she parked next to him.
He had taken her home.
“I promised you I’d show you my better telescope one day,” he said. “But it’s mounted pretty permanently.”
“Okay,” she said.
“Only if you’re okay with it,” he said.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” she challenged, feeling not at all sure of herself. Daniel’s words still stung - because, she knew having a crush on Jack O’Neill was frivolous, silly, pointless and because, she’d realized, Daniel had not been entirely wrong.
O’Neill didn’t bother with the front door, instead going around the side of the house onto the deck and into the kitchen through the slider. It was a nice house, but a bachelor’s house. It was kind of sparse and it lacked any real cohesion as far as decoration was concerned. It was a collection of functional things. The table had four chairs but only one had a placemat and the rest was covered with newspapers and empty beer bottles and take-out containers.
“I’m going to light a fire so it warms up a little,” he said. “Have a seat.”
The living room was sunken and she followed him down the couple steps and perched on the edge of the sofa. He crouched at the hearth and started to stack firewood on the grate. She screwed up a little courage.
“Sir,” she said. “I just... I wanted to apologize for Thanksgiving.”
“Why?” he said. “You fed me, welcomed me, made me feel included.”
“My father was a little... tactless and I hope you didn’t feel uncomfortable about your wife and your...” She trailed off uneasily.
“Your mom died in some sort of accident?” he asked.
“Yeah, I was twelve. She was in a taxi and got hit by a semi.”
“My wife was driving home from her folk’s house and it was raining. She hydroplaned into a telephone pole,” O’Neill said. “She didn’t have a scratch on her.”
“Oh my God,” Sam said.
“Charlie was 18 months,” O’Neill said. “I was deployed. I came home for the funeral and retired as soon as I could and stayed home but Sara never really could recover and she left.” He lit the fire. “Your father didn’t upset me. I have a whole new scale for getting upset now.”
“Do you hope maybe she’ll come back? That’s why you haven’t... made it official?” Sam asked. She was horrified with herself for even asking but she had to know.
“No,” he said. “It’s over, but divorces are expensive and I figure until it becomes important to get one, I’d just let it lie. For her sake.”
She looked around while he fed newspaper and kindling to the fledgling fire. There were no pictures, really hardly anything on the walls. There was a shadow box of medals from the Air Force and a print of a wooded landscape over the mantle but no family portraits, no pictures of friends.
“You want to see the telescope?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said.
She followed up up the stairs - stole a glance through the crack in his bedroom door to see a perfectly made bed and a sliver of nightstand and not much else. The guest bedroom had another, smaller bed and a balcony and it was here they went out. He had a wooden ladder that went up to the roof.
“Okay,” he said. “The ice makes it slippery. I salted the crap out of everything but just be careful.” He climbed up first and she followed. He took her hand and helped her onto the little landing. It was obviously designed with one person in mind because there was really just the space for the telescope and a chair, but he’d shoved another chair up there, the collapsible camping kind. There was a blanket across both chairs.
“A cozy place to have a lesson,” she said.
“Somehow, Carter, I get the feeling that I’ve never taught you something you didn’t already know,” he said.
It was cold and the roof was high enough that the trees didn’t do a very good job of cutting through the wind. Her cheeks and lips felt raw and she sank into one of the chairs, pulling the blanket over her lap.
“I don’t have anything set up,” he said. “I figured you’d know what you wanted to look at.”
“What if I looked at something real quick and then we went back inside,” she said.
“Florida,” she said. “First real winter in a while.”
“I gotta toughen you up for winter,” he said. “Take a look, I’ll go make something warm to drink so you can stand it.” He climbed back down.
She put the blanket around her shoulders and put her eye to the cold telescope. It was a lovely piece but the truth of the matter was, she didn’t just want to look at stars anymore. She wanted to go up there, someday.
She was back in her seat when he returned, deftly climbing the slippery ladder with two mugs in one hand.
“Now,” he said, huffing and puffing a little, his breath a visible cloud. “I know you’re not quite drinking age yet, but you’re pretty close.”
“A year,” she said. “And a couple weeks.”
“I just want to reassure you that this cocoa I’ve brought you is 98 percent cocoa,” he said.
“And the other two percent?”
“Extra warmth,” he said.
“Ah,” she smirked. He settled into the seat next to her. “You know, Professor, you are a terrible influence on me.”
He grinned and clinked his mug lightly against hers. She took a sip - she could taste the alcohol but it wasn’t overwhelming. She didn’t know what it was but she liked it well enough. She took another sip and let the warm liquid sit in her mouth.
“You sign up for classes yet?”
“No, I can’t until Friday,” she said.
“What are you taking?”
“Chem lab, Quantum Mechanics, Math Methods, Solid State Physics,” she said.
“Well, you know, if I’m declaring Physics, which I am, Astronomy II doesn’t exactly fit into my course load,” she said.
“Ah,” he said.
“I have some general credits I need to fulfill, so I was thinking of doing an English or History class,” she said.
“Well, it’s been a pleasure, then, Miss Carter,” he said.
“I... I don’t have to be in your class to be in your club, though, right?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “I’d like if you continued on in the club.”
“Good,” she said.
“You only did a year at your Florida school, right?” he asked. She nodded. “How are you in so many upper division physics courses as a sophomore?”
“My physics classes transferred well,” she said. “I took a lot of the basic ones as a freshman and I came into my freshman year with some college credits intact from doing advanced work as a high schooler.”
“Of course you did,” he said.
“Actually, after finals are done this semester, I’ll have enough credits to be a junior which means I won’t even have much hassle signing up for those upper division classes,” she mused. “If I really put my nose to the grindstone, I could finish a semester or two early.”
“And then what?” he said. “Grad school?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I’d like to go to MIT, I think? Maybe CalTech, but I know east coast schools still have a better reputation.”
“Anywhere you want to go will be happy to have you,” he said. “That’s for sure. Sometimes Danny talks about going back to Boston.”
Sam looked down into her cocoa - she didn’t really want to talk about Daniel but O’Neill’s sideways glance in her direction meant he was testing the waters with subject.
“Hmm,” she said, noncommittally.
“You and Daniel got into it pretty good from what I hear,” O’Neill said.
“Well he’s your friend,” she said.
“Nah,” he said. “Don’t do that. Danny just gets... he’s a smart guy but he can’t always see the forest for the trees, you know?”
“What did he say to you?” she asked.
“That he put his foot in his mouth,” O’Neill said. “Carter, listen.”
“You and I both know that the world gives you things just to take them away again. I was overseas for the majority of my son’s life and I think about everyday how he was here for such a short time and I missed almost all of it.”
“It must be terrible,” she said.
“I know now, though, that when good people walk into your life you have to do something about it. I met Daniel on accident and I thought, that goofy kid has a good head on his shoulders and there’s something about his wacky perspective of the world that makes the bad feeling in my chest go away a little.” He grimaced as if admitting it was a hardship. “And so I make it a point to keep knowing Daniel because not a lot of people do that for me.”
“Oh,” she said.
“You, Carter, are young and brilliant to the point where when I read your papers, I gotta look shit up because I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said. “That’s refreshing. You’re smart and funny and you enjoy astronomy and think about the future and something about your combination of blonde hair and IQ points makes my day just that much better,” he said. “I know it’s not... always appropriate but I figured if you didn’t care and I didn’t care then maybe we could just look at the stars once a week and feel okay with it.”
She laughed a little, couldn’t stop but feel good at his words.
“I’m okay with it,” she promised. “I just... I didn’t want to be a burden.”
“That’s stupid,” he said.
“Got it,” she said. “Stupid genius, check.”
“Nah,” he said.
“Uh, sir, did Daniel tell you what he said?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“I didn’t... I don’t meant to... it’s not true, really, so...” she stammered.
“He was a jerk,” O’Neill said. “And it was unfair to say that to you. Whether or not it’s true isn’t the point here. If it’s not, fine. If it is, I’ll just feel good about myself because I’m an old guy with busted knees and you’re the best looking person in the physics department.”
She smiled and he elbowed her a little and she nudged him back.
“Yes, sir,” she said.
“And for crying out loud, Carter, you can call me Jack when we’re not in class,” he said.
“Okay,” she said.
“Okay,” he replied.
They were quiet for a few moments, looking up at the dark sky.
“I’m really going to freeze to death,” she said.
“Okay, okay, inside you big baby,” he agreed.
She wasted no time in climbing down the ladder.
“Maybe I should’ve joined the Air Force,” she joked. “Then I’d be tough enough to stand these subzero temperatures.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “Then you would’ve never met me.”
Since Sam already used the Academy library and was familiar enough with the campus, once Christmas break started, she agreed to meet her new tutoring student on his campus.
“You sure you don’t want to wait until after the holidays?” she asked over the phone.
“Nah,” he said. “I need all the help I can get starting right now.”
Finding a table in the Academy library would not be a problem. The place was practically deserted as Sam made her way through campus. Almost everyone had left for the holidays and honestly, she was kind of bummed out that she’d be spending the next hour figuring out just how dumb this guy was instead of sitting on the sofa in her pajamas eating candy and mentally obsessing over when her final grades would come out.
There was a bored looking woman behind the desk at the library and the only other person was sitting at a table by the window.
“You must be Cadet Mitchell?” she said.
“Hi,” he said. “Whoa, hi there.”
“Hi there?” she asked.
“I just... you are not what I expected,” he said, pulling out a chair for her.
“What did you expect, exactly?” she asked, crossing her arms.
“No, I don’t... I mean, I just... sorry,” he said.
“Look, let’s get one thing straight right away. I am smarter than you and not just a little, but a lot and it’s got nothing to do with me being a woman so you can take your ‘hi there’ and shove it right up where the sun doesn’t shine,” she said.
“Jesus, no, sorry,” he said. “You were just pretty, that’s all, I just think you’re pretty.”
“You don’t think smart women who are good at math can be pretty?” she demanded.
“Can we start over?” he begged.
He stuck out a hand. “I’m Cameron Mitchell,” he said. “Cam.”
She sized him up for a bit longer and then shook his hand firmly. “Sam Carter.”
“Great,” he said. “This is great. Have a seat and we can talk more about how dumb I am.”
“I just get defensive when men don’t think I can teach them math,” she said, setting her bag down.
“Feisty is another word for it,” he said. “Also scary. It’s fifty degrees in here and I’m sweating like a sinner on Sunday morning.”
She sat down.
“I know you can teach me math,” he said, sitting across from her. “If I didn’t think you could teach me math, I wouldn’t be here on December 19th.”
“Yes why didn’t you go home again?”
“Couldn’t really afford it,” he said. “I get to go once a year and I tend to pick the summer.”
“So you just stay alone in your dorm for Christmas?” she asked. “That’s so sad.”
“Honey, like thirty seconds ago you were about to shove something up my ass so forgive me if I don’t accept your pity,” he said but he smiled and she scrunched up her nose.
“Maybe we did get off on the wrong foot,” she said.
“I’m nice,” he said. “I am. I just am not good at complex equations.”
“So they say,” she said. “Alright, show me what you need and we’ll figure out where to go from there.”
Mitchell wanted to fly, that much was clear. Sam knew the percentage of the Air Force who were actually pilots was small and that flying was not just about pulling hard on a throttle but more about equations and gravity and force. If she could just get him to think about a plane and see numbers instead of a surge of adrenaline, he’d have a better chance.
“I can teach you math,” Sam said. “But helping you apply it to flying may be trickier.”
Mitchell frowned. “I’ll be okay.”
“I have a professor who is a retired colonel,” she said. “I’ll ask him for some tips.”
“Did he fly?” Mitchell asked.
“He flew,” she said, confidently.
“You have to let me thank you properly,” he said. “Dinner?”
“Don’t push it, cadet,” she said, shoving his math book across the table at him.
He just grinned as if accepting some unspoken challenge.
Jacob got sent to Nevada the day after Christmas and then onto D.C. and wouldn’t be back until after the new year. Sam, used to her father’s traveling and extended absences, was happy that at least they got Christmas Day together. He left her some food money on the counter and was gone before she woke up on December 26th. It was nice to have the house to herself and though she would’ve welcomed Mark home had he decided to come for the holiday, the solitude was not unwelcome.
She knew at some point she had to make up with Daniel, but every time she thought about calling him, anger boiled up in her chest. If he knew that she really did have complicated feelings for Professor O’Neill then it had been cruel for him to say something about it and if he had been guessing, grasping at straws, it had still been cruel and more than a little petty.
She wondered what his feelings toward Professor O’Neill really were. Did Daniel allow himself to be collected by O’Neill for the same reason she had, because she was bright, but alone, or was there something else that Daniel wanted from O’Neill?
She chastised herself, feeling no better than Daniel. If Daniel did have romantic notions toward O’Neill then it was none of Sam’s business and she would not call him out on it the way he’d done her.
Her hand was on the phone but she decided against calling him and let the phone go, only to have it start ringing. She thought maybe it was her father checking in on her.
“Oh,” she said. “Hi, Professor, how are you?” Her traitorous heart sped up.
“I thought I said call me Jack,” he said. “And you’re not my student anymore.”
“Jack,” she said, though it felt odd. Like it was against some unspoken rule.
“You have a good Christmas?” he asked. Had he called her up just to chat?
“Yeah,” she said. “My dad left this morning for a few weeks, though. How was yours?”
“Good,” he said. “Good.”
“Um,” she said. “So did you need something or...”
“Well,” he said. “I was trying to think of a way to trick you into having dinner with Daniel and me, but I just decided to tell you the truth.”
“You and Daniel,” she said.
“He feels bad,” O’Neill said. “I think you do too?”
She sighed theatrically and he chuckled across the line.
“Can I take that as a yes?” he said.
“What time?” she asked.
“Tonight?” he said. “My place. Seven.”
“Can I bring something?” she asked.
“I like pie,” he said and hung up. She stared at the phone in her hand for a moment and then replaced it in the cradle. She had most of a pumpkin pie in the refrigerator. They could take it or leave it.
Her father had gotten her all new warm things for Christmas - a thick black coat and a blue set of gloves, hat, and a scarf. She put on her new things and her boots and made her way to the Jeep. They hadn’t had fresh snow in a while and it seemed to make it colder, everything just freezing over and over again. She slipped in the driveway and landed hard on her butt.
“Ow,” she said, using the handle to haul herself to her feet. She’d have to remember to shovel and salt in her father’s stead. Rubbing the cold, wet, sore spot, she started the car and waited for it to warm up, looking at the pie on her passenger’s seat. She was sort of glad she and Daniel were going to apologize to one another. She still didn’t have a lot of friends and she missed Daniel’s exuberance for the past and peaceful hope for the future.
The roads were fairly empty but she still drove carefully all the way to Jack’s house. She practiced saying it out loud. “Jack,” she said. “Jack, Jack. Hi, Jack. Hello, Jack. Jack, good to see you!”
She slowed down as she approached his house.
“Self, you are embarrassing,” she muttered as she parked. She shut the car off. The house was glowing, warm and inviting in the darkness. Jack’s driveway was shoveled and clear and she was glad that she got out of the car without adding another bruise to her other ass cheek. She carried the pie and knocked on the front door.
When he opened it, he looked at her with a warm look and a soft light behind him. “You can always go around and come in through the side,” he said.
“Okay,” she said. She felt herself flush and held out the pie for him to take while she stepped in. She wanted to take her warm things off - even by his front door was warm. She could see a roaring fire down in the living room fireplace and it felt like the heat was on. He took the pie and peeked under the tinfoil while she unwound her scarf and pulled off her hat.
“Oooh,” he said. He went to the kitchen to put it on the counter. She hung her coat and followed him in. She could tell Daniel was already here but she didn’t want to go directly to the living room without Jack as a buffer so she went to the kitchen first. “You limping?” he asked, his brow wrinkling in concern.
“I slipped,” she said.
“You okay?” he asked. “I salted everything.”
“No, it was my driveway,” she said. “My dad is out of town and I forgot about winter.”
“How long is he gone for?” Jack asked.
“At least until the new year,” she said.
“Hmm,” he said.
“Is he here?” she asked.
“Living room,” Jack said. She didn’t move and he realized she was waiting for him to lead the way. He rolled his eyes and walked through the dining room and she followed.
“Danny, she’s here,” he said unnecessarily. Sam looked at Daniel. Daniel looked back at Sam.
“Sorry,” they both said at the same time.
“Great!” Jack said, clapping once. “Who want’s lasagna?”
During pie, it started to snow again.
“I shouldn’t stay,” Sam said, peering out through the window. “In case it gets worse.”
“You could both stay,” Jack said. “I have a guest room.”
“Oh,” Sam said. “Sir, I wouldn’t...”
“I’ve stayed before,” Daniel said. Daniel was half way through a bottle of wine and looked like staying had been his plan all along. “It’s fine.”
“And you’ve been drinking,” Jack said. She was on her second beer in several hours and while she felt relaxed, she didn’t feel drunk. Though drunk was something she’d never been, so maybe she was a poor judge of whether or not she should leave.
“You have big plans for the morning, Sam?” Daniel asked. “Busy?”
“No,” she said. She had no plans. Start taking down the Christmas tree and packing their box of meager decorations away. It was actually a dreary prospect. “Fine. We stay.”
“Great,” Jack said. “In that case, I have just the thing.”
He made them a batch of his famous spiked hot cocoa but this time hers was much more boozier than the last time he’d made her cocoa.
“So staying in is synonymous for getting drunk?” she asked, coughing a little after her first strong sip. She didn’t exactly like it but she was glad for the chocolate to mask the strong burn.
“No,” Jack said. “But try relaxing every once in awhile, eh, Carter?”
“I’m relaxed!” she said.
“Stop thinking so much, he means,” Daniel said. Sam huffed. Easy for them to say - they were better friends with one another and she felt like an outcast. She didn’t know what they saw in her, what she was doing there, what she was doing with her life... she didn’t know anything, really, and if they thought that having an above average intelligence solved any social problems...
“Hey,” Jack said. “You’re doing the opposite of relaxing.”
“You okay?” Daniel asked, sitting up from his sprawled out position on the sofa to squint at her in concern through his big glasses.
“I just feel...” She was about to say lost but she found she couldn’t admit that. “Like I need to use the bathroom,” she finished lamely and went down the hall and closed the bathroom door behind her. She glanced at her watch. It was after ten. She felt a little tired, her head a little swimmy. She used the toilet and washed her hands and then pressed her cool fingers to her cheeks. Her skin felt warm. She gathered her long hair into a ponytail and secured it with the tie on her wrist and then opened the door.
Jack was there, leaning against the wall, waiting for her.
“You sure you’re okay?” he asked.
“Just momentarily overwhelmed,” she said.
“Want me to drive you home?” he asked. “I didn’t mean to strong arm you into staying.”
“No,” she said. “I’m okay.”
“Having friends is not a bad thing,” he said with a wink. “Even if they’re old guys.”
“I just feel like I’m about to get caught,” she said, lowering her voice so Daniel wouldn’t overhear. “I’m sorry.”
It was as good as admitting to him that she felt the way that Daniel had implied - because why feel guilty about a platonic friendship?
“Sam,” he said matching her quiet tone and stepped toward her. He lifted his hand and-
“Guys?” Daniel called.
He moved back and she coughed and whatever moment was gone.
“Coming,” she called.
Daniel could not, as it turned out, hold his liquor. He was giddy and loud for almost an hour and then passed out on the sofa, snoring loudly.
“Predictable,” Jack said. They covered him with an old quilt and she followed Jack up the stairs to the room with the guest bed and the balcony that led up to his roof. “Need anything?”
She shook her head - in the morning, she’d want a toothbrush but she hoped she’d be the first awake and gone before anyone was the wiser.
“I don’t, uh, I don’t sleep particularly well, so... if you change your mind...” He pointed at his door down the hall.
“Okay,” she said. He touched her shoulder just briefly and then left her.
She didn’t sleep well, either. She climbed into the bed in her shirt and underwear only to toss and turn and doze while listening to the wind blow and the branches of the trees outside crack with the cold. When finally it was light enough to see by, she thought about sneaking out but saw that the Jeep was too covered in snow to drive without first shoveling it out. She got up, pulled on her pants and her sweater and crept downstairs to use the bathroom. She saw two unopened toothbrushes and a travel sized tube of toothpaste and she was grateful.
When she opened the door, she could hear the weather report on the television and smell coffee brewing. So much for being the first up.
“Sleep well?” Jack asked when she entered the kitchen.
“Not really,” she admitted.
“Me either,” he said. “Windy.”
“If you have a snow shovel, I’ll dig myself out,” she said.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s 15 degrees out there and you’re in a cable knit sweater and socks, why don’t you run on out to the garage, get a shovel and start digging.”
“He’s not a morning person,” Daniel called from the living room.
“How many sleepovers do you two have?” she muttered. There was an empty mug next to the coffee pot and she filled it and slumped into the chair across from him.
“Enough,” Jack said. “Daniel gets lonely.”
“You get lonely!” Daniel yelled indignantly.
“You could just join us,” Jack snapped. After a moment, Daniel shuffled in with the quilt around his shoulders and heaped himself into a chair. He stared at Sam’s coffee mug pathetically enough that she just pushed it to him and got up to fix herself another.
“I’m beginning to see why people don’t do this as adults,” she said, searching his cabinets for another mug. She found them and chose a white one with a picture of a mallard duck on it.
“Of course they do,” Daniel said. “They just usually have sex.”
She turned to look at him with wide eyes.
“Anthropologically speaking,” he amended. “And usually but not always the sleepover is limited to two. Though, I suspect that the statistics on polyamorous relationships are often higher than reported because it’s taboo in modern society.”
“Orgies,” Jack translated helpfully.
“I got that,” Sam said. “Thanks.”
“Not necessarily,” Daniel said, hitting his lecturing stride. “Usually in polyamory households, there are multiple two person relationships as opposed to threesomes.”
“Ah,” Sam said.
“Though triad relationships do exist,” Daniel said. “Which I could almost see the benefit of adding a third person into the mix. You’d get to shoulder less responsibility and in return get even more support financially, emotionally, and physically.”
“This got weird fast,” Jack said, resting his chin on his hand.
“This isn’t some roundabout sales pitch, right?” she asked. “Because I’ve never had a long term relationship with one person so I’m pretty sure I’m not ready for two.”
“No!” Daniel said. He glanced at Jack.
“No,” Jack confirmed. “Daniel just gets interested in... things.”
“Societal bonds, taboos, unusual practices - those sort of things. Fascinating.”
“I guess,” she said.
An awkward silence settled over the kitchen.
Sam spent the morning watching television and eating breakfast on Jack’s couch while he dug out her Jeep and then she gave Daniel a ride home. She walked in her house with just enough time to shower and get back in the car. She had another appointment with Cadet Mitchell.
He was better behaved this time - which was to say, he didn’t start out the session commenting on her physical attractiveness and had completed the assignments she’d left him with, so she couldn’t really complain. And, once she got over her initial ire at being objectified, Cam was actually a little funny and kind of nice in that southern, old fashioned way. She had completely forgotten to ask Jack about flying, but she didn’t really want to admit that she’d just come from her professor’s house where she’d spent the night because there was just no way to cushion that so it didn’t sound completely sordid.
“Once school starts,” she’d said, brushing his question aside.
When they were finished, he cleared his throat and seemed to stand a little taller.
“Tomorrow is Saturday,” he said.
“Looks like you don’t need that day of the week tutor after all,” she said, rummaging around in her bag for her car keys.
“I mean,” he said. “Tomorrow is generally the day that young people go out and have fun.”
She heaved a big sigh. “I thought you weren’t going to make me have to beat you up,” she said.
“I don’t see what the problem is,” he said. “I don’t want to marry you, I don’t want you to have my babies and bake pies in my kitchen-”
“I just know you’re alone while your pop is out of town and I’m far away from my family and it’s Saturday night so maybe I could just take you to dinner and there won’t be any funny business.” He raised up one hand. “Swear.”
“You really want to sit alone on a Saturday night?” he prodded.
She thought of Jack and Daniel, sprawled out drinking beer in the living room, how she’d wound through them, picking up dirty plates and empty bottles and how Daniel had reached out to touch her hip as she passed and how Jack’s eyes had watched every move and how comfortable it had been in little moments when she’d managed to stop overthinking everything.
But that couldn’t be every night and while generally she did not at all mind sitting alone on a Saturday night, this Saturday night was an exception. This Saturday night happened to be her 20th birthday and she’d told no one and had no plans and it was, even for her, slightly pathetic.
“One date,” she said.
He fist pumped in victory.
“If you try any funny business or you make it weird or I decide I don’t like you anymore, I’m not only going to not date you, but I’m not going to tutor you either,” she said.
“A calculated risk I am willing to take, Miss Carter,” he said. “What’s your address? I’ll pick you up at eight.”
“I’ll pick you up,” she said. “No reason to tell you where I live.”
“A forward thinking woman of the 80s,” he said. “I like it. See you tomorrow.”
He walked out of the library with too much swagger in his step for her liking and she fretted about her decision for the rest of the night and most of the next day.
But she’d agreed and so she put on some nice pants and a button down shirt. If he expected a dress in late December, he had another thing coming. But she did line her eyes and put on the blue eyeshadow her only living female relative had sent her for Christmas, her father’s much older sister, and was surprised that the reflection in the mirror looked modern and almost pretty. Her eyes looked bluer than ever and she knew her hat and scarf would bring them out even more.
Cam was waiting outside of his dorm for her and hopped into the Jeep without an invitation.
“Cold,” he said. “Cold out there.”
“Hi,” she said, dryly.
“Hi,” he said. “You look nice.”
“You can’t tell that,” she said. “I’m wearing black pants and a black coat. I’m, at best, a blob.”
“I meant your face,” he said. “Hey Sam, anyone ever tell you that you’re not real good at taking a compliment?”
“Sorry,” she said. “Thanks. You look like an attractive enough dark blob, too.”
“Now was that so hard?” he asked.
“Where to, flyboy?”
“With any luck,” he said. “I was thinking Italian?”
“Anyone ever tell you that you’re not supposed to eat spaghetti on the first date?” she shot back, pulling back onto the street.
“I’m an adrenaline junkie,” he said. “Life on the edge!”
It wasn’t a bad date. She was actually kind of compatible with Cam and though she’d vowed at her mother’s funeral that she’d never marry a military man, Cam was so different than most of the military men she’d met in her life. He was funny and excited and let her pay for her half of the bill with only a little grumbling.
“Coffee?” he said.
“I have some at the house,” she said. “And some brownies if you’re interested.”
“Guess you decided I was trustworthy enough to know your address?” he said.
“Well,” she said. “This is going to sound really extra super pathetic but I bought the brownies to have tonight because, please don’t laugh, it’s my birthday.”
“Jesus H. Christ, Sam, why didn’t you say anything?” he asked. “The waiter could have sang to you!”
“I guess you answered that question,” she said.
“Should we be going to a bar right now?” he demanded.
“Alas,” she said. “20.”
“Next year,” he said. “Next year, all the shots!”
“We’ll see,” she laughed.
“Hey,” he said. “Happy Birthday.”
“Thank you,” she said. “Thanks for asking me out.”
She pulled up to the house and as soon as she turned the car off, he leaned in and said, “No funny business but it is your birthday and I didn’t get you anything so...”
And Cam Mitchell stole a little kiss. It was short, but sweet and she found she didn’t hate but she also found her first reaction was to feel guilty, like of all the men to be kissing her on her birthday, Cam was not exactly at the top of her list.
“Thanks,” she said when it was over. He winced but didn’t complain, only turned to his door and got out.
“Hey,” he said. “Someone left something on your porch.”
She could see it, the long red box and as she registered that it was a gift of some kind, a loud engine turned over and she turned on her heel just in time to see a very familiar green truck roaring away down her street. Her stomach dropped.
“Oh, God,” she said, and rushed forward to the gift. There was a card. She tried to open it and tore the envelope practically to shreds with her gloves on in her haste. There was just a square piece of cardstock with some familiar handwriting - she’d seen it enough on her papers over the last semester.
Happy Birthday, Carter.
She read it again, feeling horrified. Had he seen Cam kiss her? Had he just seen another man getting out of her car? It was dark after all, and...
“Something wrong?” Cam asked.
“I just...” she said.
“If it’s a stalker, I’m already level one in hand to hand combat,” he offered.
“No,” she said. “Just a friend. Unexpected.” She turned to peer down the dark and quiet street now, her breath a wavering, visible puff in front of her. Her nose was running and her heart was hammering in her chest.
“If it’s flowers, which is my suspicion, you should probably get them inside before they freeze,” Cam said, a note of defeat already in his voice.
“Yeah,” she said. “I will. Actually Cam, is it alright if I just take you back? I am a little tired.”
“Tired,” he said. “Yeah, Sam. It’s fine. Want me to drive?”
“Sure,” she said. She opened the door just long enough to shove the box inside and locked it again and tossed him the keys.
Cam drove like she did, a little too fast for the weather. He was mostly quiet until they got to the campus and then he said, “You’ll still be my tutor, right?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Of course. I really did have fun tonight.”
“Me too,” he said. He parked and turned off the engine but left the keys in. “Happy Birthday.”
He got out, gave her a little wave, and disappeared into his building.
She thought about driving to Jack’s house to apologize but she knew that she hadn’t really done anything wrong. She’d gone on one date with Cam and it had been fun. Jack had never asked her out on a date and she’d never expected him to. Furthermore, she hadn’t even told him that it was her birthday, so how had he known?
She drove home. She would look at what was in the box and then, if she felt up to it, she would phone him.
Don’t give in, she heard her mother’s voice say in her head. Make him explain himself.
Her mother had been feisty, too.
In the house, she turned up the heat and peeled off her outer layers, eyeballing the box pretty hard. She put on the kettle for some tea. Coffee had seemed like a good idea an hour ago but now she already felt jittery and unsure. She saw there was a message on the machine and she nearly tripped over herself getting over to hit play, sure that it would be Jack calling to laugh off the whole ordeal.
But it was only her father calling to wish her a happy birthday.
She turned to face the box and then moved it to sit on the dining room table. It wasn’t heavy but it wasn’t light and she shook it just a little but couldn’t tell.
The tea kettle started to whine.
She made her tea and then returned to the table.
“Just open it,” she muttered to herself and with some resolve, set down her mug and untied the ribbon that held the box close. She lifted the flap and looked inside.
A dozen white roses and something else. She reached in and picked up two tickets to something - what looked like some sort of show at an observatory in Denver.
God, that was so nice and thoughtful. She touched the white roses and they were cold against her fingers. She didn’t have any nice vases but they had an almost empty canister of oatmeal so she dumped out the remnants and filled it with hot water. She put in the roses and looked at them for awhile before moving them to her nightstand in her bedroom.
She had to call him - it was late but she dialed anyway. If he didn’t answer, she would leave a message.
But the phone just rang and rang.
She hung up and called back and got a busy signal, like he’d taken the phone off the hook.
Sam wouldn’t call it hiding, exactly, but she certainly didn’t leave her house and she screened the phone calls, picking up only to talk to her dad. Jack didn’t call anyway. It was December 30th and the sun was going down when someone knocked on her door.
She opened it, her heart in her throat, but it was Daniel, his hands in his pockets and his glasses just a little crooked on his face.
“How did you get here?” she asked. Daniel didn’t have a car.
“I took a cab,” he said. “So you’d have to talk to me or abandon me to die in the cold of night.”
“Come in,” she said. “Coffee?”
“Tea, if you have it,” he said. He looked around. “This is nice.”
“No it isn’t,” she said. “It’s military housing.”
“It’s more than a cot on a wall,” he said.
“I guess.” She put on the kettle. “So. What’s up Daniel?”
“Oh, you know,” he said. “Just in the neighborhood.”
“I wonder how it is that you know where my neighborhood is, exactly,” she said.
“A little bird told me.”
“A little bird who was here the other night, leaving presents on my porch?” she said softly.
“Those tickets are for tomorrow night, you know,” he said. “I hope you go.”
“I’ve been calling him,” she said. “I don’t think he wants to talk to me.”
“I think he’s confused,” Daniel admitted. “I don’t think he realized.”
“Realized what?” she asked. “That I know someone besides the two of you?”
“No, that he... you know.” Daniel of wary of saying too much after the last time.
“I literally don’t,” she said. “I don’t know, Daniel.”
“He didn’t know how he felt about you,” Daniel said uncomfortably.
“I tutor that guy,” Sam said. “It was my birthday. I let him take me out to dinner. It wasn’t anything to get riled up about.”
“The same way you didn’t get riled up when he told you he wasn’t divorced?” Daniel asked.
“You know it’s not too late to get your psychology degree,” she snapped. He smirked.
“I’ve thought about it.”
The kettle went off and she fixed their tea in a thick, huffy silence.
“He’s fifteen years older than me,” she said, finally. “I’m his student.”
“Say you weren’t,” Daniel said.
“Say you met him differently. Say in another universe. If he’d never been your professor, what would that change?” Daniel asked.
“He knows my father,” she said.
“But if he didn’t,” Daniel pressed. “If it was just the years.”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “It’s not that he’s older, it’s that... I’m younger. I’ve hardly done anything with my life. I don’t understand what he sees.”
Daniel sipped his tea.
“And anyway,” she smiled. “What about you?”
Daniel choked on his tea.
“Oh,” he said once he could talk again. “I don’t have anything to do with what you decide.”
Sam didn’t quite believe him, but left it alone.
She was afraid he wouldn’t come to the door. She’d knocked twice already. Lights were on and his truck was there so he was inside, but he wasn’t answering. So she took his old invitation to go around the side and let herself in. The kitchen and living room were both empty.
“Jack?” she called. She went up the stairs slowly listening hard and distributing her weight so she made as little noise as possible as she climbed. She could see his bedroom door was open and the room was dark. She passed the guest room but that was empty too, the doors to the little balcony closed and the curtains drawn.
That left the bathroom and the little office she’d never explored.
He was in the office, sitting at the desk with a beer and a photo album.
“Sir?” she said.
He looked up at her, his eyes dark and sad.
“Hey, Carter,” he said.
“You didn’t answer your door,” she said. “I let myself in.”
“I can see that,” he said.
“You okay?” she asked. She couldn’t see the photo album well but it looked like personal, family pictures. There was a picture of a baby and it wasn’t hard to put two and two together.
“Sure,” he said.
“I got your flowers,” she said. “And your tickets. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” he said.
“You know,” she said. “It’s tonight.”
“What is?” he asked, rubbing his chin as he gazed at the picture of his dead son. He had at least a days worth of growth.
“The observatory,” she said. “The new years eve party. The tickets.”
“Right,” he said. He closed the album and swiveled to face her. “You could take your friend.”
“I...” She faltered. “He’s not...”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s a gift. It means you can take whoever.”
“I tutor him,” she said. “That’s all.”
“You kissed him,” he said. “But then, maybe I’ve always been doing tutoring all wrong.”
“You were hanging outside of my house watching me,” she said.
“Denver’s a bit of a drive,” he said. “Better get going.”
“No,” she said. “Not without you.”
“Not dressed for it,” he said. He stood up. He was in jeans and a sweater. He had on socks, no shoes, and looked like he was in for the night. But she’d put on makeup, she’d curled her hair, she’d put on lipstick.
“Jack,” she said.
“Go on, Carter,” he said, pushing past her. “Have fun.”
It was the dismissive way he said it, how he walked past her like she didn’t matter that made her stop feeling hurt and start feeling angry.
“Hey,” she said. “I’m sorry your life isn’t turning out like you planned but that doesn’t mean you get to treat me like this.”
“Like what,” he said, hesitating at the other side of the hallway. “I got you a present, I didn’t promise to go with you.”
“If Cam hadn’t been there, you would’ve gotten out of your truck, you would have said hello, and we’d be halfway to Denver right now,” she said.
“I know you think highly of yourself, but a big brain doesn’t let you see the future,” he scoffed. He was being mean on purpose because he was wounded. She could tell by the way he wasn’t looking her in the eye. It was a stunt Mark pulled all the time.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked.
“I have a lot of students-”
“Stop,” she said.
“Who form inappropriate crushes on me, that’s normal,” he finished.
“You,” she sputtered. “I, you sent me, I can’t believe you!”
He did look slightly ashamed.
“Go home,” he said again.
“Screw you,” she spat and turned away. Halfway down the stairs, though, she looked back up and saw he was still watching her. “Daniel and I aren’t your son and your wife, you know,” she said. “You can’t just replace them with us.”
She let herself out the slider, around the house, and into her Jeep. She wished she’d said it with her back to him like a coward; she wished she hadn’t just seen the anguish on his face.
Her father’s voice down the hall. He was home, just coming through the door. She was still in bed, reading even though it was well approaching lunch time. She had expected him to stay at work, not come home midday.
“In here,” she said.
He stuck his head through her doorway. “Hi, honey. You sick?”
“No,” she said, closing her book over her thumb so she didn’t lose her place. “Just enjoying my vacation.”
“I saw your grades,” he said. “Good job.”
“Thanks,” she said. She’d gotten straight As, even in physics from Professor Albertson. Luckily, she wasn’t taking him again this semester and would, with any luck, never sign up for another of his classes. The grades had come and she’d almost balled them up at the sight of J O’NEIL and the A he’d given her, but it was customary to hang good grades on the refrigerator, so she’d done it.
“Can you come out here,” her dad said. “I need to talk to you about something.”
Sam frowned, surprised. Usually when her dad had to talk to her about something, it meant that they were moving but they’d only been in Colorado for a couple months and he always stayed at any post for at least a year.
“Okay,” she said.
In the living room, he’d hung up his coat and put his suitcase in his room, but he still had on his dress blues. He sat on the couch and patted the cushion next to him. She sat, curled up and tucked her legs under her.
“You look tired,” he said.
“Not used to this winter, I guess,” she said. “You do too.”
“I had a busy trip,” he said. “Sorry I missed your birthday. What did you do?”
It came over her so fast, she didn’t have time to prepare. All of a sudden, her eyes were swimming and he was opening his arms and she was crying, her face against his scratchy blue shoulder. He let her cry. She didn’t do it often, but she’d cried a lot the first few days after her mother had died, before she had pushed everyone away.
“You want to talk about it?” he said, when she seemed to slow. He reached over to the end table and pulled out a tissue for her and she mopped up her face.
“No,” she said, sounding stuffy. “Not really.”
“Well, if you change your mind,” he said. But she wouldn’t. How could she explain to him about any of it? About spending all those starry nights with a man fifteen years older than her, sleeping in his house, thinking about him late, late, late at night. Her father wouldn’t understand and she didn’t understand, herself. She was just a kid and he was so smart and experienced and handsome and had so much baggage that she couldn’t begin to really understand.
“You wanted to talk to me,” she said. “Remember?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Sam, listen. I’ve been reassigned.”
“What?” she said. “You can’t have been, it hasn’t been long enough!”
“There have been some shakeups,” he said. “They want me in D.C.”
“You want to move across the country now?” she said.
“I don’t want to,” he said. “But I have to. Sam,” he smiled. “They’re going to make me a General.”
It was what her father had been working toward his entire career. “Wow,” she said. “That’s amazing. Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” he said. “We have three weeks to pack this place up.”
“Dad,” she said. “What about school?”
“I know it’s late to transfer, but...”
“I’ve already registered for classes,” she said. “Paid tuition.”
“What are you saying?” he asked.
She’d always gone with him. She’d always lived with her dad. What did she have to stay for, really? Jack and Daniel? A physics department who was already slightly suspicious of her. Colorado winters?
But she didn’t want to leave. Nowhere else had ever come as close to feeling like home, before.
“I think I want to stay,” she said. “At least finish school.”
“You’re certainly old enough to take care of yourself,” he said. “I... I’ll miss you.”
She smiled. “You’re not going to another planet, dad.” He chuckled.
“Do we still have time to get you into the dorms?”
“No,” she said. “But actually, I think I have an idea.”
She drove to Daniel’s later that day. She didn’t call first because she didn’t know if he was mad at her for getting into a fight with Jack. He’d already tried to interfere to get everyone to make up, but it wasn’t always that easy. Still, she wasn’t upset with Daniel, so she parked outside of his house and knocked on his door, hoping he’d answer.
The front door opened and it wasn’t him. It was a tall, lanky stranger.
“Can I help you?” he said.
“I was looking for Daniel,” she said. “I’m Sam.”
“Come in,” he said. “Daniel’s in his room. I’m his roommate, Tom.”
“He said you were never here,” she said, testing the waters.
“I’m just picking up some things,” he said with a warm smile. “I stay with my girlfriend pretty much all the time.”
“So you pay rent to not live here?” she asked.
“Yeah, it’s kind of a drag but I signed a lease so...” He shrugged.
“Have you thought about subleasing?” she asked.
“I have but I am extremely lazy,” Tom said. “Why, do you know someone?”
Sam moved in the last couple days before her classes started. She had some reservations - obviously she didn’t actually know Daniel that well and she’d spent enough of the time she did know him mad at him, but also she trusted Daniel, the rent was cheap, and the house ridiculously close to campus. It had a lot of benefits.
She didn’t have a lot - her dad helped her pack up the Jeep and they moved her in two trips. One trip for the boxes and one for her mattress tied to the top, the ice cold wind whistling through the slightly open windows. Her dad had agreed to not only let her keep the Jeep but because he wouldn’t need a car in D.C., but the Honda as well. He told her she could sell it for the money, if she wanted, but instead she decided to just let Daniel drive it.
Daniel wisely didn’t mention Jack around Sam’s father and didn’t press the issue in the final days Sam had to spend with Jacob. He didn’t mention it on the first day of class when she was rushing around trying to find things in her still half packed boxes and he was trying to get ready to teach an early class. He didn’t talk about it when she came home, tired and cold and feeling untethered.
He didn’t talk about it for so long that she almost wished he would. It wasn’t until the middle of their first week of school, a Wednesday, and they both were home in the morning. Sam didn’t have a class until later and it was Daniel’s day off. She appeared in her room to find him making coffee in the french press.
“Want a cup?” he asked. She slipped into an empty seat at the table with a nod. He got out two mugs, both novelty mugs. One said ‘Number 1 Dad’ and the other was a ‘Reagan for President’ mug. She was a little relieved when he slid her the ‘Dad’ one.
“What class today?” he asked.
“Math Methods,” she said. He pulled a face but she shook her head. “I think I’ll like it.”
“Well someone must,” he said. “What time?”
“6:30,” she said narrowing her eyes at him. “All of a sudden so interested in my timetable.”
“So that puts you out at... 7:00?” he asked.
“7:15,” she said, still squinting at him. “What of it?”
“Gives you plenty of time to go, then,” he said, taking an obnoxious, theatrical slurp of his coffee.
“To go where?”
“To astronomy club,” he said.
“I was wondering when that other shoe was going to drop,” she said.
“Yes,” he said.
“Does he even feel bad?” she asked.
“Do you?” Daniel asked.
“Yes,” she admitted. “I said something that was... perhaps not fair or kind.”
“Perhaps,” he said dryly.
“And he was a colossal asshole,” she said.
“He was,” Daniel said.
“I went there and tried to make it right and he didn’t care,” she said.
“He cared, Sam,” Daniel said. “He just lacks the ability to... emote like a normal human.”
“Great,” she said.
“When I met Jack,” Daniel said, looking for all the world like he was saying something he shouldn’t, “I was surprised he was holding down a job. I was surprised he was getting out of bed and functioning at all. I thought he was suicidal.”
“What changed?” Sam asked. Daniel shrugged.
“Time, maybe,” Daniel said. “Maybe the fact that I showed any interest at all? I think he forgot that people could... you know, see him.”
She wrapped her hands around her mug, tucked her chin down. She slept with her hair in a loose french braid and it some of it had come out in the night and hung in her face.
“Okay, so, then what happens?” Sam asked. “Say we make up and say we figure out... what we’re all doing here. What is supposed to happen?”
Daniel shook his head with a small smirk. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you completely miss the point before,” he said with no small amount of awe. She felt the crawling heat of shame - the same uncomfortable feeling she always got when she didn’t get something right on the first try.
Perhaps the most pressing issue was that Sam wasn’t even sure what she wanted for herself. It was hard to see past graduation - she knew that she would simply apply to new schools and start the process over again in an effort to get a masters degree and then again for her doctorate. Who knew where that would take place. No wonder it was hard for her to imagine settling down somewhere - she’d never done it.
So how was she supposed to add another person into the equation? Jack didn’t seem like the type to just follow her across the country and she couldn’t imagine having enough to offer him ever and wasn’t that the problem, then? He was an adult and she didn’t know the first thing about adult relationships. She knew enough about sex to have had it, but it had been more about rebellion and not at all about love.
And all of this was assuming that Jack wanted something more than to bed her. And that she wanted something from him at all. In bed, she imagined what it might feel like to have him there with her - a warm and constant weight at her side. That was as far as her imagination would take her for some reason. Her brain fizzled out when his hand reached for her. She thought she might like it and her brain knew it and was taking that step to save her from herself.
“Just go over there again and talk to him,” Daniel pleaded but his words rankled and she felt indignant.
“Why do I have to reach out?” she demanded. “He’s a grown man. He can figure out what he wants and how to get it.” To that, Daniel had no ready reply. She used his silence as a means of escape and hit the shower while he puzzled out what to do next.
On campus, she walked by the public notice board and searched for what she knew had to be there - but it wasn’t. There was no flyer for astronomy club. She even went so far as to lift some other flyers and see if it had been tacked over but it wasn’t there. Incensed, she went to the science department and wandered along the hallways, looking at the smaller bulletin boards until she found herself right outside his dark classroom. It was early and she knew he taught by day at the prep school and only taught one or two classes a semester on campus. She hadn’t even thought to check whether he would have his class on the same night for spring semester - whether Wednesday night stargazing still worked for him. He’d had Astronomy II Wednesday nights and Astronomy I on Thursdays and she fretted now, loitering outside his door, that if she didn’t go to astronomy class, she wouldn’t see him anymore on campus and maybe at all.
She readjusted the weight of her pack on her shoulders, realizing she should probably start heading to her class when she heard the shuffle of feet on the linoleum and looked up to see Jack walking towards her, sorting through the keys on his keyring.
Too late to hide now though her muscles all tensed like they were plotting to dive behind something solid without her consent. But she held her ground and he looked up, his face impassive.
“Carter,” he said. While his face looked hard his voice was a little warmer.
“Hi,” she said. “I was just wondering about...”
“Wednesdays at 8:00,” he said. “Same time every semester.”
“I imagine not at Cheyenne Mountain,” she said. The snow had waned somewhat without any fresh powder falling but she knew up a few hundred feet would be a different story.
“No,” he said. “Right here for the first meeting.”
“Good,” she said. She could hear Daniel in her ear, pushing her to say something more. “Jack, I-”
“I have a class coming,” he said. “But we can talk later, okay, Carter?”
“Okay,” she said. With his dismissal firmly in place, he opened the door to his classroom and flipped on the light. The door swung closed behind him and she was left alone in the hallway.
She pulled her hat down over her head and went back out into the cold night. The sun had already set and she hurried across a small quad to where her math class would be and hoped it would be at least complex enough to keep her mind occupied.
She had forty-five minutes between the end of her class and the start of her meeting, so she went to the library where at least it would be warm. She could walk home, fix a thermos, and come back but she was afraid that if she went home, she couldn’t force herself back out again.
She found a table and cracked open her math book, intent on at least making a dent in her first assignment. A fresh piece of graph paper and a pencil that was sharp enough and she got down to business. Doing math was relaxing. She could look at a formula and just understand it - solving it down to a simple number was like raking leaves in the fall and seeing the green lawn emerge. Satisfying and beautiful.
Someone thumped into the seat across from her. She looked up, startled, to see T grinning at her, a book so small it was comically tiny in his hands.
“I’m not sure I get Emily Dickinson,” he said. “Tutor me this.”
“I’m not your tutor anymore,” she said, dryly. “And all I remember about her is her extreme fondness for the dash.”
He cleared his throat and said, “Bred as we, among the mountains, Can the sailor understand, The divine intoxication, Of the first league out from land?”
“It’s pretty,” she offered.
“You would not make it as a poet,” he said, shaking his head.
“It seems like she is talking about someone setting off for sea for the first time after growing up somewhere landlocked,” Sam said. “And how thrilling and scary that must be.”
“On the surface,” he said, vaguely.
“Sorry, T,” she said with a soft smile. “In this situation, you’re the tutor.”
“Are you just going to sit here alone all night?” he asked.
“No, I have my club thing,” she said. “In... fifteen minutes.”
“Math?” he asked.
“No, stars, remember?” she said. “With Professor O’Neill.”
“Oh, yeah, that guy was pretty cool,” T said. “Would... Could I go?”
“You want to go to astronomy club with me?” she asked, surprised.
“Why not?” he asked. “You think it’s too complicated for me?”
In fact, it was the opposite. They hardly ever talked about astronomy but that was because it had just been the two of them, slowly getting to know one another. Maybe with actual members of the club, they would be forced to stay on subject. Maybe the safest thing to do was to bring someone along.
“No,” she said. “I think it would be great.”
She had found she’d missed T and was glad that he had made an overture of friendship, something she’d never been particularly good at. She talked about moving in with Daniel and her dad leaving while they went back to the science building. Approaching the classroom door, she slowed to peer through the glass in the door. She saw Jack at his desk and Daniel sitting at one of the front desks.
Daniel looked up, looked right at her like he could sense her and grinned, waving her in. She pushed open the door and felt T take the weight of it from behind her and pull it all the way open.
“Daniel,” she said. “What are you doing here?”
“I was in the neighborhood,” he said. Jack shuffled some papers on his desk and Sam realized that maybe she wasn’t the only one who’d brought someone else for safety.
“You guys remember T?” she said.
“Hi,” he said. “Mind if I join?”
“Not at all,” Jack said. “I mean, as long as you don’t mind the fact that you get to put this club on your résumé for doing absolutely nothing.”
“I am fully okay with that,” he said and folded into a seat.
“So what do you have planned for us, Professor?” Sam asked.
“I dunno,” Jack said. “Anyone up for pizza?”
At the pizza parlor, laughing and talking over food, listening to T tell stories about the football team, about his classes, listening to him talk about losing his dad, Sam felt better than she had in a long time. She and Jack hadn’t really talked but there was something about the four of them being together that just felt good and right.
“What do you say,” Jack said, as they all dropped money in the center of the table to pay their bill, “to meeting at my house next week.”
“Ah,” Sam said. “The roof.”
“Yeah, I don’t think my roof is gonna hold all four of us, Carter,” he said. “But I have a yard and you can see the sky and that’s... that’s pretty good.”
“Sounds good,” Daniel said and it was obvious he was happy to be together, too, and didn’t want to rock the boat. Jack was looking at Daniel affectionately and then turned to stare at Sam, his eyes warm and dark.
“Sure,” she said. She elbowed T. “You in?”
“I mean,” he said. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Good,” Jack said.
“I might not make every meeting,” he hedged. “Practice and homework and stuff.”
“We do homework at Jack’s all the time, but of course, whatever works for you, Mr. T,” Daniel said. Sam and Jack both burst out laughing. “What? I was trying to be polite!”
“Just... just T,” T said.
“Got it,” Daniel muttered. They all put on their coats and walked out to the parking lot. They’d all crammed into Jack’s truck - Sam and Daniel close in the narrow back seat.
“You want me to take you to campus or home?” Jack asked T.
“Campus is fine,” he said. “Thanks.”
“Fine for us too,” Daniel said.
“I can take you the whole way,” Jack said. Sam was about to argue, but Jack met her eyes in the rearview mirror and she changed her mind.
“That’d be nice,” she said. And when they let T out and headed toward the little house, she said, “You want to come in for a bit, sir?”
“Sure,” he said. “I’d love to take a look at your love nest.”
“Ha, ha,” Daniel said dryly. “Sam is only half unpacked and we’re poor.”
“Does that mean you don’t have alcohol?” he asked, pulling up in front of the house.
“I think we have wine,” Daniel said.
“Hmm,” Jack said. Daniel climbed out but Jack hadn’t shut the engine off yet. “Carter and I are going on a beer run. We’ll be back in a jiffy.”
“Oh-kayyy,” Daniel said, narrowing his eyes in suspicion. Sam shrugged, got into the front seat and closed the door.
“Not a wine fan?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “Also, I owe you an apology.”
“No,” she said. “I’m sorry. I said... I didn’t mean that.”
“You were right,” he said. “I had no right to expect anything of you.”
“That’s not...” she shook her head. “You can expect things, it just might help if you communicated to me what those things were.”
Jack winced like she’d kicked him in a sore spot. “Fair enough.”
“I got a little confused as to what was happening,” she admitted. “Like I had started to see things that weren’t... maybe weren’t there.”
“I don’t think that you saw anything wrong,” he said. They’d hit a major intersection and he stopped for a red light. He looked over at her. “You’re very young.”
“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“No,” he said. “It’s not a thing you did wrong, Sam. It’s a thing I’m doing wrong.”
“I’m not even your student anymore,” she said. “Not really.”
He flicked on his turn signal and pulled into the parking lot of a little liquor store all lit up with neon signs and fluorescent lights. He shut the engine off and shifted uncomfortably in his seat, stared at the store in front of him.
“I had a family and I lost them and I’ve never even thought about moving on from that,” he said. “But first Daniel and now you and I’m just concerned what life is going to be like if I want to live it.”
“I guess you just have to try,” Sam said.
Sam thought about her mother while they were in the store, how it had felt like she wouldn’t be able to go on without her and how mad she’d been when her father had just kept living, kept raising his kids, kept moving forward. But time passed and while it still hurt to think about, she too had come to the conclusion that living was better than not living.
Jack paid for the beer - she didn’t offer to chip in because she was still underage and she figured if he wanted her to drink beer, he could at least buy it for her.
Coming out of the liquor store with a case of longnecks under Jack’s arm, a taxi pulled up into the parking lot and parked right next to the truck. Sam jumped back, startled and afraid. She saw Jack watching her, his face concerned and curious. She felt a little dizzy but shook herself out of it. Not every taxi was the one her mother had died in, and she reminded herself that she was safe.
“You alright?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “That taxi just... startled me.” And then, “I don’t like taxis.”
“Not a New Yorker at heart,” he said.
“Absolutely not,” she shuddered.
“Any particular reason?” he asked, putting the case of beer into the bed of the truck.
“No,” she said and got in the truck. But when he got in and closed his door, stuck the key in the ignition, she said, “My mom died in a taxi.”
“Oh, right. That would do it,” he said, and then, as if issuing an order, “You’re okay.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “Thanks.”
When they got home, Daniel helped them put the beer into the refrigerator. Daniel didn’t drink but Sam cracked a beer feeling shook up and silly for it. She’d never seen Jack at her house before but it was obvious from how he made himself at home that he’d been to the house plenty. She sat next to him on the couch and Daniel sat in the armchair across from them but before long, Daniel cited his early class the next day and excused himself to bed.
“I’m sure you have to teach tomorrow, too,” Sam offered, giving him an out. He’d finished his drink and was balancing the empty bottle on his open hand. She felt better, more relaxed, a little tired. But the weight she had been carrying around since New Years had started to ease.
“I’m glad you came tonight,” he said, setting the bottle down. “I wasn’t sure you would.”
“I wasn’t sure you wanted me to,” she said. “But I’m glad, too.”
He leaned in a little and said, “Carter, what if I-”
“Okay,” she agreed and, rather bravely, she thought, closed the distance. She’d come in a little fast and their mouths met with a bump but they recovered well and it turned into a sweet, soft kiss. After a moment, he pulled back.
“I was going to say take you to dinner,” he said.
“Oh,” she breathed, mortified.
“But this is better,” he said, his hand sliding up her neck to cup her face and angle it for a much deeper kiss.
His tongue against her lips and she opened up for him, surprised to find it not at all how she remembered it to be. She was not trapped beneath him while he tried to suffocate her with his tongue down her throat. Instead, it felt nuanced and hot and soft. He rubbed his tongue softly against hers and she felt her whole body turn liquid with a sharp pang. She arched into him and she could feel him smile against her mouth.
There was a bang from the other side of the wall and then Daniel’s soft swear, like he’d dropped something.
“It’s late,” he said, when she pulled away.
“It is,” she said.
“Thanks for the beer,” he said and stood up.
“What about Friday?” she asked. “You wanted to take me to dinner.”
“Friday,” he said. “I guess I could throw something on the grill.”
“You want to cook for me?” she asked. “It’s freezing outside.”
“Take it or leave it, Carter, I’m not a fancy restaurant guy,” he said.
“Yeah, yeah,” she said. “Friday.”
He headed for the door with a wave. As soon as the door shut, Daniel stuck his head out.
“I dropped my cup of water and I need some paper towels,” he announced loudly. “Is it safe?”
“Why wouldn’t it be safe?” she said as he rushed into the kitchen.
“It got awfully quiet out here,” Daniel said. “Conclusions were drawn.”
“Well you can put all your conclusions right back where you found them,” she said, haughtily. He stared at her and she stared back, her lip twitching slightly.
“You hussy,” he said.
“You fell right into his dreamy brown eyes!” Daniel accused.
“I agreed to one date,” she said. “And that’s all I’m saying.”
“Yeah huh,” Daniel said, grabbing a fistful of paper towels and disappearing back down the hallway. “We’ll see.”
Sam brought her book bag to her date. She couldn’t help it - she had a lot of homework and she figured since he just wanted a night in, he might not might if she did a little work now and then. If he was manning the grill or something. She stopped to put gas in the Jeep, dancing around a little as the icy wind blew. The sun had already set and the wind cut through her. Winter after Christmas was just something to be endured while one waited impatiently for spring.
When she pulled up to his house, it was dark and she didn’t see his truck. She glanced at the clock on the dashboard. It said 6:45 but she knew it ran slow and it was almost seven. Did he forget?
She parked anyway and knocked on the front door simply as a formality but no one answered. She walked around the side and tugged on the slider - it was open, so she let herself in. The house was cold - not as cold as outside but cold enough that he’d been gone for several hours. Maybe she’d beat him home from work? She didn’t have his work number - only the number for his machine on campus but he didn’t work at the university on Fridays. She tugged off her gloves and stood in his kitchen trying to decide whether to stay or go. She decided to stay for a bit to see if he showed up with some sort of anecdote as to why he was late for that date she’d been looking forward to for the last couple days.
Deciding to stay, she located the thermostat in the hallway and turned it up a few degrees. The heater kicked on with a loud rumble and she frowned. It probably needed to be looked at. She didn’t know how handy Jack was but he seemed like the type of guy who wouldn’t want her dismantling his furnace on a first date. She found a vent on the floor in the kitchen and the air that came out was hot so she let it be.
Hanging her coat on a hook by the front door, she walked down the few steps into the living room. There was a TV tray still set up in front of his recliner with an empty can of beer and a dirty bowl. She hoped occasionally he drank water and ate something besides pizza and grilled meat. She carried the dirty bowl to the sink and ran some water in it.
She made a fire - did a check upstairs and even went back outside to make sure he wasn’t on the roof, but no, he was gone. She’d just sat down on sofa to pull out her homework when the phone rang.
She jumped up. Should she answer it? It could be Jack calling to explain or it could be absolutely none of her business. She let it ring, standing in the kitchen by the answering machine on his counter and heard his voice say, “This is Jack O’Neill, leave a message.” And then the tape clicked on.
“Sam? You there?” It was Daniel. She rushed to pick up the phone.
“I’m here,” she said. “Hey, what’s up?”
“Jack called the house looking for you,” Daniel said.
“Yeah, I’m at his place, where the hell is he?” she asked.
“He went over to T’s house to help with something - I guess his uncle is kind of sick? And T hurt himself, so Jack took him to the Emergency Room,” Daniel said. “He just called to tell me because he realized that he wasn’t going to be home when you showed up.”
“Is T okay?” Sam asked.
“I think so,” Daniel said. “Jack said they weren’t going to be too much longer.”
“Jesus,” Sam said. “I guess I should just come home.”
“You could stay,” Daniel said. “I mean... you don’t have to but maybe it would be nice for Jack.”
“You’re such a sap,” Sam said. “Why don’t you come over and wait with me?”
“Ugh, fine,” Daniel said and hung up.
Sam turned on the TV and sat on the floor in front of the fire where it was warmest. The house would warm, but slowly compared to the little house she shared with Daniel. She wanted to snoop - open that little cupboard in the end table that had the dusty lamp on it or see what was in the junk drawer in the kitchen, but she held back. Not because she thought that she’d be caught and not even because she thought Jack would be mad, but because it was really important to her that Jack could trust her. She wanted him to know she had his back and she wanted him to have hers. It was such a bizarre desire - they weren’t fighting a war, they were just leading normal lives with the smallest complication of occupations that were at odds.
Probably she shouldn’t date Jack. She didn’t need to consult the stars to know that, but there was just something about him that made her want to fling rules out the window. It’s like she’d spent her whole life being responsible and good and now looking at Jack made her feel like she was in a free fall; that other, responsible girl long gone.
A car door closed - Daniel. He didn’t knock, just went around the side and through the slider, shucking his jacket and boots and leaving them in the kitchen, heaped in the corner.
“You want to order a pizza?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said, not looking up from her homework. She heard him dial the phone and make the order. He ordered two larges - enough for Jack to join them and possibly several other people.
“He never shops,” Daniel said. “At least he can eat whatever is left over.”
“I have, like, ten dollars in my purse,” she said.
“It’s okay,” Daniel said. He went to the cookie jar on top of the refrigerator and pulled out a twenty dollar bill.
“You two are so weird,” Sam said. “Are you sure I’m not trying to date your boyfriend?”
“Jack is family,” Daniel said, shrugging. “I can tell because I hate him as much as I love him.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right,” she said, tapping her pencil against her paper. “I hope T is okay.”
“Me too,” Daniel said. “Jack said he fell off a ladder.”
“From how high?” she asked. He shrugged.
Daniel watched TV while Sam spread out more and more in front of the fire. She was reading a chapter in a textbook when they both heard the truck pull up outside. Daniel muted the TV and looked at her. She felt nervous too, worried for T and odd that she was in Jack’s house without him. She closed the book and stacked up her papers and notes while they waited for Jack to make it from the truck to the door.
Jack came in through the front, which was unusual, but then T came in after him, a big white cast on his left arm. They both looked tired and worn down.
“Hey,” Daniel said first. “How... how did it go?”
“Clean break,” Jack said. “Six weeks in a cast.”
“Doesn’t even hurt,” T said.
“Yeah, he’s on a lot of painkillers,” Jack said. He looked at Sam who gave him a shy wave. “T is gonna stay here tonight so his uncle doesn’t have to worry about him. You’re all welcome to stay, too.”
“Are you sure?” Daniel asked.
“Yeah,” Jack said, still looking at Sam. “I’d like it.”
“Did you eat?” Sam asked T, reaching out to touch his cast lightly. T looked tired and she pointed him toward the sofa and gave him a little push. It was like pushing a brick wall, but he took the hint anyway and sat down. “I’ll fix you a plate,” she said, when he didn’t answer. She and Daniel had eaten most of the first pizza, but she put the last three slices on a plate and stuck them in the microwave. She could hear Jack and Daniel talking about the accident - how T had missed a rung on the ladder and landed on the concrete walkway with a sickening crunch.
There was a case of diet soda in the refrigerator that looked suspiciously like it had been purchased with her mind since she couldn’t recall Jack ever drinking soda, diet or otherwise. She took out a can for T just as the microwave beeped.
“Thanks,” he said, when she set the plate and the can in front of him.
“There’s more,” she said to Jack. He nodded.
“I’m gonna hop in the shower, actually,” he said. “But after.”
She nodded. She would dote on T, make sure he had all his meds, water, a comfortable place to sleep. She roped Daniel into helping her make up the guest bed with clean sheets she found in the linen closet so T would be warm and comfortable for the night. She put an extra pillow on the guest bed so he’d have a place to prop up his arm as he slept.
“You and I will have to rock, paper, scissors for the couch, huh?” Daniel said with a knowing smirk. And then he winked.
“Shut up, Daniel,” she said. But he’d made a good point - With T taking up the lion’s share of any bed he was in and only one sofa, where would they all sleep. She was past days of sleeping on the floor when a comfortable bed was only a car ride away. Daniel’s wink implied she should bed down with Jack, but they’d shared one kiss - were they ready for a whole night together?
Jack came downstairs with wet hair in sweats and a t-shirt. He looked tired too. Sam was in his recliner and the guys were on the sofa, but T had his chin to his chest as he fought the drowsiness brought on by his painkillers.
“Come on, big guy,” Jack said touching his shoulder. “Let’s get some sleep.”
Daniel went with them, making sure they both got up the stairs okay. Sam let her eyes close for just a minute, warm and comfortable.
She woke up to Jack crouched next to her, his hand on his cheek. She opened her eyes, surprised to find the television off and Daniel already stretched out on the sofa, a quilt covering him, his glasses on the coffee table.
“Come to bed,” Jack said.
He made it seem so easy, made it seem like it wasn’t much of a choice at all. Why wouldn’t she follow him up the dark stairs, down the hallway, her hand in his? Why wouldn’t she slip into his bathroom to find the toothbrush she’d used last time already in the medicine cabinet? And why wouldn’t she take the soft t-shirt he offered to sleep in?
She unbuttoned her blouse, still feeling drowsy. He was watching her as she let her own shirt fall from her body. She tossed it onto the nearby chair and slipped the t-shirt over her head. Sufficiently covered, she shimmied out of her pants. At home, she’d take her bra off, but it seemed odd here, so she left it on. He pulled back the comforter and sheet.
“You okay?” he asked.
She was nervous, she felt a little sick to her stomach, actually.
“Fine,” she said. “Which side do you prefer?”
“Go ahead,” he said, smirking. She slipped into the bed and he got in after her, clicking off the lamp as he went, the room dark so suddenly and then lightening bit by bit as her eyes adjusted.
“Hey,” he said after a couple minutes of rustling and getting comfortable - there was still space between them enough that they didn’t touch. She wondered if he could tell how hard her heart was pumping.
“I’m sorry... I’m so tired and I’m sorry. This isn’t how I imagined this,” he said.
“Oh,” she said, an odd sense of relief flooding her and then, surprisingly, disappointment. “You imagined this?”
“Oh yeah,” he said.
“It’s okay,” she assured him. She thought about saying something else, or sliding over toward him but soon enough, his snores filled the room so she rolled over onto her side and closed her eyes.
Sam went grocery shopping and bought a second set of things for Jack. It wasn’t that he couldn’t do it for himself, it was that he wouldn’t and every time she and Daniel went over there and ended up spending the night, there was never cream for the coffee or fresh eggs and the bread was always stale. So she bought two cartons of milk, ten apples instead of five and swung by Jack’s to drop it all off while he was at work.
That night, while she was doing homework in front of old reruns of I Love Lucy, the phone rang. Daniel answered it and handed it over, the long cord stretching across the couch to her.
“Hello?” she asked, holding it to her shoulder so she could erase something from her notebook.
“You’re not my mom,” Jack said.
“I... I already knew that,” she replied.
“You don’t have to stock my fridge,” he grumbled.
“It wasn’t for you,” she said. “It was for me. I was dying. I had to use tissue for toilet paper last time I was there, you should be embarrassed.”
“Well I’m not,” he said, though he obviously was. “What are you doing?”
“Want to come over?” he asked.
“I have an early class,” she said, glancing at Daniel who was already making motions with his hands for her to go on and leave.
“So, you can study here,” Jack said. “Scout’s honor.”
“Were you even a scout?” she asked, tossing her pencil into her textbook to save her page and closing it with a defeated thump.
“Don’t bring Daniel this time,” he said and hung up.
“I heard that,” Daniel said as she navigated the phone cord around him to cradle the receiver.
“He just meant-”
“Sex,” Daniel said. “I know.”
“No,” Sam said. “We... we haven’t done that.”
“Excuse me?” Daniel asked. “You’ve slept in his bed like six times!”
“We just... it never has... I mean we’ve done... things, but...”
She turned red.
“Oh my god, you’re a virgin,” Daniel said.
“No, it’s not that,” she said. “It’s not me.”
“Oh,” Daniel said.
“He always just shuts down at a certain point,” Sam said. “It’s fine. I’m in no hurry, but I know he feels bad, so it’s become this big awkward elephant in the room.”
“I see,” Daniel said. “Well, just go over there and take off all your clothes.”
“I do have homework,” she said, gathering up her books and shoving them into her bag.
“If anyone can afford to skip an assignment, it’s you,” Daniel called after her as she went into her room. She shoved some clean underwear and an extra shirt into her bag also. She always intended to come home before class, but it was always good to have another option. She shouldered her bag and grabbed her keys.
“Godspeed,” Daniel said.
“Shut up,” she said and locked the door behind her.
Jack was sprawled out on the couch with a beer when she let herself in, and for a man who complained about her groceries, he seemed to have no qualms eating his way through them.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi.” He patted the couch next to him. “Hello.”
“You drunk?” she asked.
“Not technically,” he said. He had an empty next to him and she could see two more in the kitchen.
“I do have work,” she reiterated.
“I’ll just sit here quietly, then,” he promised. And he did - for about forty-five seconds. Then he started flipping a bent bottle cap in the air and catching it. Finally, he missed and knocked into it. It skittered across the coffee table and landed silently on the rug. She glanced up at him and he looked the other way and let out a little whistle.
“Oh, Carter,” he said with a scowl. “We sleep together, you don’t have to call me that. I mean, unless that’s what you’re into, I guess.”
“Sort of,” she muttered.
“You’re sort of into that?” he asked, sitting up a little.
“No, I meant... never mind.”
“No, not never mind,” he pushed.
“I meant we sort of sleep together,” she said.
“Oh,” he said. “Well, I don’t want to, you know, pressure you or whatever.”
“Pressure me?” she said with a laugh. “I thought you felt pressured!”
“You’re young!” he said. “I didn’t want to seem lecherous.”
“You’re saying we’ve been revving each other just to stop short for... nothing?” she asked. “We’re stupid.”
He grinned and reached for her, pulled her in for a kiss. She allowed it for a minute and then pulled back.
“I really have to finish this,” she said.
He groaned and got to his feet. “Come to bed whenever you’re ready,” he said and went upstairs.
By the time she finished her assignment and climbed the stairs, he was long asleep. She made sure the alarm was set, brushed her teeth, found one of his old t-shirts to sleep in, and carefully navigated around him to get into the bed.
And then she was dreaming and in the dream, she and Jack were together and he was touching her perfectly and she never ever wanted him to stop.
“Come on,” Jack said. “That’s good.”
Sam’s eyes flew open and the first thing she saw was the light through the window - the flat gray of pre-dawn. And when the pleasure didn’t ebb upon waking, she looked down and saw that, in fact, Jack really was touching her. His hand was inside her underwear and as she met his eyes with embarrassment and pleasure, he slid one finger inside of her.
“Oh,” she gasped.
It had been so long that there was a moment of discomfort but he had her so worked up that it was brief and when he pulled the finger out and pushed it again, her eyes rolled back in her head and all embarrassment quickly gave way to need.
“You were moaning in your sleep,” Jack said, his thumb pressing against her clitoris. “You seemed like you needed some help.”
When she came, she was a shuddering, sopping mess. It had never quite felt like that, not even on her own. When she touched herself, she knew she was always in control but now it felt heavy and unpredictable and when Jack started to pull her ruined underwear down her legs, she lifted her hips to let him.
“Don’t stop this time,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” he promised. “I’ll do whatever you say.”
He stuck one of his wet fingers in his mouth and licked it clean.
Sam thought it would go on forever, which was naive. She thought she and Jack and Daniel and T would just spend their days in and around Jack’s house, eating and watching sports and studying and while intellectually she knew that nothing like that lasted forever, she never bothered to think very far ahead.
But then T’s uncle passed away suddenly and T took over his business and they never saw him anymore, and when they did, he was too tired to do much of anything.
And then Daniel graduated and decided to go back to Boston. There was a woman there he wanted to study under, someone named Catherine who - as far as Sam could tell - wasn’t an academic of much worth and had too many odd theories to be taken seriously. But Daniel seemed determined to go.
“You guys will be fine,” he assured her. “But it’s a new decade now and I have to figure out my life.”
“That’s very dramatic,” Sam said, watching Daniel shove the last of his clothes into plastic bags.
“No it isn’t,” he said. “I’ve been in school for as long as I can remember. I have to do something that’s going to lead to a job, eventually. I think studying with this woman is going to do just that.”
“Okay,” Sam said. “I guess.”
“We’ll keep in touch.” Daniel sounded sure but Sam moved around enough to know that they wouldn’t. They would try - a phone call every couple weeks at first and one or two letters, but then those would stop. She’d send a birthday card one year and he wouldn’t call her and that would be that. “Anyway,” he said. “You have Jack. You two will be fine.”
“No, I won’t,” she said. “I’m going to have to find a new roommate.”
Daniel looked at her, smirking. “Sam, you barely stay here anyway and the lease is almost up. Just go live with Jack.”
“That’s kind of a big commitment,” she said. “I still accidentally call him ‘sir’ half the time.”
“Well you only have one more semester until you can graduate, right?” he said. “Figure it out then.”
But what was she going to do? She and Jack never talked about the future, and after Daniel and T were both out of the picture, Jack seemed to want to talk about it even less.
They were okay day to day - she went to class and he went to work and they came home and made dinner. She was in charge of side dishes and he grilled meat outside on the deck unless it was a blizzard. On the weekends, they worked in the yard or changed the oil in their cars in the driveway or went for hikes if the weather was nice.
Until one day Jack came home from work and found Sam in the office.
“Whatcha doin’?” he asked.
“Filling out my application to MIT,” she responded.
“MIT? As in Boston?”
“Cambridge,” she said, glancing up. “I mean... they’re the best.”
“Yeah,” he said. “You’ll get in no problem.” And he disappeared down the hall.
At dinner, she set her fork down and said, “Should we talk about it?”
“Nothing to talk about it. You’ll go,” he said.
“Daniel’s out there,” she reminded him. “Sometimes a change of scenery can be nice.”
“I’m too old to uproot, Sam,” he said. “But I would never, ever stand in the way of your career, you know that.”
It felt weird to have it decided just like that.
She’d go, he’d stay. All good things must end, her dad always used to say.
Sam unlocked the apartment door and switched on the lights as she threw her purse down on the chair with a little more force than was strictly necessary. Down the hall, a door opened and her roommate, Stacy, came out in her pajamas.
“Sorry,” Sam said. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Wake me?” she said. “It’s 9:45. Why are you even home?”
“It was... not right,” Sam said.
“You never go on dates!” Stacy said. “And the first one I get you out the door on, you come back after two hours? What the hell was the matter with him?”
“Nothing,” Sam said. He’d been a friend of Stacy’s friend and he’d been nice enough, smart too, but in the end Sam had just wanted to go home. “It just was... he wasn’t right.”
“Well then who is right?” Stacy demanded.
Sam immediately, guiltily, thought back to Jack. It’d been years, now, and she still missed him. They had kept in touch in the beginning but long distance was unrealistic and then, sort of abruptly, the contact had stopped and she hadn’t been in touch with him since. She’d been friends with Daniel while she was in grad school, but he’d always been busy and then he’d moved back west again and he’d fallen off the map too.
The only person she kept in regular contact with from her time in Colorado was T, and that was only regular birthday and Christmas cards. He had a family now.
So, why, then, did she compare every man to Jack O’Neill?
“I guess I just don’t think love is as important as my career,” she said. Stacy rolled her eyes, threw up her hands, and huffed in disgust.
“Okay,” she said. “I give. If you never want to know what being in love feels like, that’s your choice.” And she turned on her heel and marched back into her bedroom, the door closing behind her.
Sam knew all about love, but love wasn’t enough to keep two people together, so what was?
Nothing, it seemed.
Sam worked at the pentagon on contract. It was another thing that made meeting people difficult. Her job required a top secret security clearance and she couldn’t really talk about anything she did at work. She really didn’t bother to tell people where she worked either. It was hard enough being a civilian in a sea of military, but she was a scientist and that put her at the bottom of the food chain. She liked her job and she did good work, but she’d only been there a couple years already she felt herself growing bored. The work wasn’t challenging and all the praise she received from her supervisor only made everything seem all the less entertaining.
She could write theoretical papers about space travel or help a team repair a satellite or sit on a committee that was designing the latest nuclear weapon but it always felt wrong. Washington felt big and impersonal and not at all like home. Only one place had felt like home since her mom died and now she was too scared to go back there.
She was still thinking about Colorado when she walked back into her lab after lunch and saw a stranger standing by her work bench. She pulled her lab coat from the rack by the door and shrugged it on as she glanced at his Air Force uniform and said, “Can I help you, General?”
“You’re Samantha Carter?” he asked.
“I’m Dr. Carter, yes,” she said.
“Excuse me,” he said with a friendly smile - a feature she did not usually find on Air Force Generals, including her father. “Dr. Carter,” he corrected. “I know your father, I believe.”
“Probably,” she said. She lived in the same city as her dad again but saw him about as often as when she lived in Boston. “He’s a busy man.”
“As am I,” the General said, “So you’ll excuse me if I jump right in.”
“Sure,” she said.
“I’m General George Hammond,” he said. “And I’m going to need you to come with me.”
“Excuse me?” she said. He handed her a yellow envelope. She took it and opened it, pulled out a letter that was signed by her supervisor and her contracting company informing her that her contract in Washington was terminated starting immediately but that another one had been written up for her at a facility in Colorado Springs, Colorado and that her salary had been more than doubled, should she choose to accept. “Well,” she said, sliding the letter back in the envelope. “That is unexpected.”
“I’d like to tell you more but-”
“You can’t, I know,” she said. She crossed her arms. “Will I be doing the same sort of work?”
“Some,” he said evenly.
“And if I decline this offer?” she asked.
“I can’t order civilians,” he said. “But I know you’ve lived in Colorado Springs once before and liked it.”
She hated background checks, especially secret ones. “Yes,” she said.
“And I can also tell you that the reason I’m here is because you were specifically requested by Dr. Jackson himself.”
“Dr. Jackson?” she asked. “Wait, Daniel?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” he said. “I know this is abrupt, but my plane leaves within the hour and I need for you to be on it as well.”
“What about my apartment? My car? My roommate?” she asked.
“The Air Force will relocate your things and aide in subletting your lease,” he assured her. She sighed, rubbed her forehead.
“If you were me, would you go with you?” she asked, finally.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he said. “I sure as hell would.”
It was surprisingly easy to follow him through the halls, out the door into the bright summer sun and into the car without saying goodbye to anyone. On the way to the base, she asked, “I tried to call Daniel and to write, but I could never get ahold of him.”
“Dr. Jackson will explain,” General Hammond said.
“Dr. Carter,” he said. “It’s a new program and I’ve had command for a short time. All you need to know is that we are staffing up and Dr. Jackson, with the blessing of my second-in-command, assured me that you are the woman to head up the scientific unit.”
“I see,” she said. She knew that tone - every military brat did. Time for questions was over.
The Air Force put her up in a hotel and gave her a temporary ID badge to get her into the base in the morning. She called the apartment where Stacy answered.
“It’s Sam,” she said.
“What the hell?” Stacy said. “Where are you? It’s so late!”
“I’m in Colorado,” she said. “I got transferred.”
“Just like that? I saw you this morning,” Stacy said.
“Some people are going to come pack up my stuff,” Sam said. “I’m going to wire you a couple months rent until you find someone to sublet.”
“I thought the whole idea behind not joining the Air Force was so you could avoid a life like this,” Stacy said.
“Yeah,” Sam said. “I guess you can’t avoid your fate.”
She thought it would be hard to sleep, but it wasn’t. She was tired and the hotel was nice enough, if close to the highway. The sound of the cars didn’t bother her, though. For a while before she got in bed, she sat at the table by the window and looked at her view. She couldn’t see much, but there was the mountain in the distance and the trees were all green. It was a relief to get away from the swampy humidity of the east coast.
After General Hammond had dropped her off at the hotel with her instructions for the morning, an Airman brought a car back for her and he drove her to dinner and stopped to get her some clothes and a toothbrush. She bought a couple sets of things, not knowing when the contents of her apartment would arrive.
She asked the hotel desk to call her at six to wake her up and then she turned on the shower. Sam loved showers and she especially loved stepping into one she’d never been in before. Even if it was just a dingy hotel shower, there was something so foreign about them, something about being on a trip or being vulnerable in a new place. She could imagine she was anywhere, off to do anything. Though, now, it was hard to imagine anything more exotic than what was currently happening to her. And generally, in the past, when she was having herself a little fantasy in the shower, she would imagine she was in Colorado Springs, waiting for Jack to come in.
And now, here she was. She’d been forcing herself not to think about Jack. He hadn’t called her, hadn’t returned her last letter. It was obvious he’d moved on, so what good was there in trying to contact him now? She could go by the house but it had been almost nine years since she left Colorado for MIT. There was nothing to say he was still there, and if he was, there was no evidence that he wanted her back in his life.
She felt pathetic, dripping onto the bath mat and toweling off with no real enthusiasm for the chore. Here she was, pining for a man she had dated for only a year or so and it had been practically a decade and there had been no actual confessions of love, no long term plans made. Now, she could look back and see that Jack O’Neill, while wonderful, had been a very damaged man and she had been young and desperate for affection and that is not something to build a relationship on.
Perhaps if she’d met him now, it could’ve been different but...
She had bought new underwear and now, she tore open the package to put on a pair and also a light nightgown, meant for hot summer nights.
She climbed into the bed feeling exhausted and woke to the phone ringing after what felt like minutes, not hours.
“Hello?” she croaked.
“Good morning, Miss Carter, this is your 6am wake up call,” said the voice on the other end.
“Thanks,” she said and fumbled the phone back onto its cradle.
She felt exhausted and out of sorts. She pulled on her new clothes - a pair of black pants and a lightweight blouse would have to do because if they were expecting a suit, they probably should’ve let her pack something. Her hair looked a little smushed on one side from falling asleep with it wet but she hadn’t thought to buy a brush, so she ran her fingers through it. She’d cut it into a bob a few years ago, so it was manageable. She had no makeup except for a tube of lip gloss that had been in her purse, so she brushed her teeth and applied that.
She managed to make the small cup of coffee provided by the hotel in her room and by the time she choked that down, there was a knock on her door and a different Airman was there, waiting to escort her to the base.
“Good morning, Ma’am,” he said.
“Good morning,” she said. “I’m ready.”
She was excited to see Daniel, though she wanted to smack him for falling out of contact with her. But she wanted to know about his life, wanted to mend their friendship, and honestly, wanted to ask him about Jack.
She was a little disappointed when she realized that the Airman had driven her to the Cheyenne Mountain complex. Though she had a fair amount of experience with satellite construction, she no real interest in working for NORAD.
The Airman had her swipe her temporary card and then left her alone in a room. Soon enough, an officer came in and sat across from her holding a manilla folder.
“I’m Major Paul Davis,” he said.
“Dr. Samantha Carter,” she returned.
“Welcome to Cheyenne Mountain,” he said. “We have paperwork to go over before we head down.”
“Generally, in the past, I mean, I haven’t signed any contract until I actually knew what I’d be doing,” she said.
“Well first you need to sign the non-disclosure agreement,” he said. “You can decide whether or not to take the job after you’ve seen the facility. But, I think you will.”
“I hope I didn’t waste the General’s time coming out here,” she said. “But I don’t think I want to uproot my entire life for - what is NORAD known for? Deep space radar telemetry?”
“Once you sign, I’ll take you down to see General Hammond,” Major Davis said noncommittally.
Sam signed and initialed and signed again and verbally agreed and as soon as she was done she cocked her head and said, “Though, what an archeologist like Daniel Jackson would have to do with satellite telemetry is beyond me.”
Major Davis simply smiled and said, “Follow me, Dr. Carter.”
It took a few hours for everything to sink in. She wanted to read the research and it seemed sound enough, though incredibly far-fetched. She saw the Stargate, though trying to believe that a wormhole was going to form in the middle of that big, empty circle was somewhat hard to believe.
“Can we turn it on?” she asked. “May I see it?”
“It’s an expensive process,” Hammond had said. “But Dr. Jackson and his team are scheduled to return today. You can certainly watch that.”
So she’d sat in what was going to become her lab and scrolled through years of data, trying to make the physics align with the physics she already had in her head. Then, she’d decided to go to the control room and have whoever was there walk her through the dialing computers.
It was a terrible design. After lunch, she met again with Hammond and said, decisively, “I will accept this job with the condition that you let me rewrite the dialing computer program.”
“Dr. Carter,” he said. “It took years and a team of scientists to create a program that opened the gate at all.”
“It is genuinely a miracle that you got it open, sir, yes,” she said. “I can make it better.”
“How?” he asked.
“Faster, more efficient, safer, and less expensive,” she said.
General Hammond almost smiled.
“All right, Dr. Carter,” he said. “Welcome to the SGC.”
She was headed to the mess hall to see if there was fresh coffee when she heard the loud alarm and the red lights down the hall started to flash. It was terrifying and startling and when everyone seemed to drop what they were doing and head in the same direction, she followed. Anyone who was armed broke right to go into the room with the Stargate and she veered left to climb up the stairs and into the control room to watch from behind the relative safety of a window.
She gasped with the water shot out from the center of the ring and when it stabilized, she was amazed out the event horizon actually rippled, like water.
“It’s safe, Doctor,” said General Hammond. “This is SG-1, scheduled to return. This is Dr. Jackson’s team.”
“Daniel is leading a team?” Sam asked. It was hard to reconcile the Daniel who used to be her absent minded roommate to someone who was regularly roaming the galaxy.
“Dr. Jackson is a member of SG-1, though the team leader is Colonel - here they are,” he said. The gate rippled wildly and then two soldiers she didn’t recognize came through, followed by what was obviously Daniel in a helmet, awkwardly carrying a gun. That made more sense.
There was a pause and then one last figure came through the gate. He had on a hat, but when the gate shut down behind him, he whipped it off and looked up into the control room.
She felt the blood rush to her face and her mouth fell open slightly.
“Colonel O’Neill,” Hammond said into the microphone. “Welcome home. Debriefing in one hour.” Hammond turned to look at her. “I expect you to be at the debriefing too, Dr. Carter.”
“Yes, sir,” she said. She watched Jack hand over his gun and disappear out the door to where his eyes could no longer track him.
Daniel found her with a warm smile and open arms. She hugged him and then gave him a hard shove in the shoulder.
“Ow,” he said.
“You are a terrible friend,” she said.
“That may be true,” he said. “You look really good, Sam.”
“I am so mad at you, I could spit nails through your eyeballs,” she hissed.
“Whoa, dark,” he said.
“You drag me out here with no explanation, trap me in this weird science fiction nightmare and I have zero warning, ZERO WARNING, that Jack O’Neill is part of this circus. How do you think that makes me feel, Daniel?”
“I don’t...” He shook his head. “It’s been so long and we were so close, once. I didn’t think it would be a problem, honestly.”
“That’s it, Daniel, you don’t think. You just jump through wormholes and forget about your friends and disappear for years and then think you can just... you can just snap your fingers...” She shook her head, stopped. “Whatever.”
“Hey,” he said. “I am really sorry about disappearing, and I’m sorry I didn’t know that things were bad between you and Jack. He told me it was an amicable break up, he totally supported bringing you out to head up our research division.”
“Things aren’t bad, they aren’t anything,” she said. “It’s nothing, he’s nothing.”
“Good,” he said carefully, like she was a feral beast of some sort. “Well, General Hammond said you’re coming to the debriefing. Then I thought maybe we could have dinner and catch up? I know it’s your first day and it’s all overwhelming but I can answer some questions if you’d like.”
“Sure,” she said. “Yes, thank you.”
“You don’t have to stay, Sam. No one would fault you for going back to Washington.”
“There’s a Stargate under NORAD that takes you to other planets,” she said, gathering up her notebook and a couple pens. “I’m not going anywhere.”
He grinned. “Good.”
Jack - no, Colonel O’Neill, she corrected herself - was the last to arrive to the debriefing, skidding in at the last minute with wet hair and rumpled BDUs.
“Sorry, General,” he mumbled and took the seat next to a man called Kawalsky. She thought he wouldn’t look right at her, thought he might feel shame for blowing her off for the better part of a decade, but he just smirked at her and said, “Hiya, Carter.”
“Colonel O’Neill,” she responded.
“Old friends, I see,” Hammond said, sitting down.
“Former acquaintances,” she said.
“Ouch,” O’Neill said while Kawalsky and Makepeace snickered and Daniel winced.
Sam tried hard to follow the debriefing but there was too much she didn’t know. She gathered they were on a planet looking for advanced technology but settling for agricultural trade and that there were no sign of the Goa’uld, a general term Sam determined meant ‘bad guy’ and that the mission had been somewhat routine. She would have to redefine what the world routine meant, it seemed.
It was overwhelming and she felt astoundingly underqualified for the job even if she would never have to go through the gate, only tinker around with whatever they brought back. It had been a long day and everyone looked tired - that seemed to be the status quo for SGC personnel. If Daniel wanted to cancel dinner, she’d be all too glad, but she realized she still didn’t have her own ride and if she went with him, he’d probably at least drive her back to the hotel after.
“You ready?” Daniel asked.
“I just need to gather some things,” she said.
“Yeah, I have to change. I will meet you up top in fifteen minutes,” he said.
She left before O’Neill could say anything to her, though she saw him lurking about.
And though she felt like she rushed to gather her things, when the elevator opened to surface level, Daniel was there and so was Jack O’Neill.
“Don’t be mad,” he said, holding up his hands, palms toward her in surrender. “Sam, don’t be mad.”
“Why would I be mad?” she asked, crossing her arms, feeling furious. “I moved on to school and you stayed and that’s that. Now I’m back and we’re co-workers, the end.”
“Okay,” he said. “Fair enough.”
“Jack is gonna come to dinner with us, if that’s okay,” Daniel said, stepping back ever so slightly. “He’s going to pay for us to have whatever we want, wherever we want.”
“Fine,” she said.
“Great,” he said, clapping. “How about barbecue at my house?”
“Daniel, can you please give me a ride?” she asked. She could maybe, maybe sit through dinner at a populated restaurant and survive but she definitely would not survive eating Jack’s barbecue, especially if she still lived in the house that they’d once shared. No way that wouldn’t end in humiliating tears.
“Come on, Sam,” Daniel said.
“I am very tired,” she said. “I have had very little time to adjust to being back in Colorado, let alone a new job and the fact that, oh yeah, wormholes and aliens and space travel. I just want to eat something and go to sleep.”
“Okay,” Jack said. “We’ll go out and then we’ll take you home.”
“Thank you,” she said.
Jack had a truck still, new, but similar to the one he’d had before. It was too surreal climbing into it. Everything smelled exactly how she remembered. Daniel sat cramped in the back and he and Jack seemed to be communicating silently. Finally, she said, “I thought you’d retired.”
“The Air Force requested I re-enter active duty when Daniel went... away for awhile,” he said. “I agreed.”
“Abydos?” she said.
“Yes,” said Daniel. “We have a lot to... well, we can’t talk about everything in public, but we can certainly hear about what you’ve been doing.”
“That’s why you wanted to barbecue,” Sam said. “So we could talk.”
“We can talk on base,” Jack said.
“No, it’s... it’s okay,” she said. “If you have food at your place we can just... go there.”
“We’ll swing by and get a pizza,” Jack said, pulling into town.
“Are you still in the same place?” she asked him.
“Not much has changed around these parts,” he said.
Not true, she thought. She’d left him a part time professor who was just taking his life day by day and now he was second-in-command of a secret military base and routinely traveling the galaxy. He did look older - his hair had a lot of white and gray in it, but he also looked fitter and more tan and she made herself look out the window why they drove.
“Where are you living, Daniel?” she asked.
“I have an apartment I never sleep in,” he said. “Mostly I sleep in my base quarters but I’ve been trying to be better about going home.”
“I’ll need help,” she said. “Figuring out where to live. Before I figured the closer to campus the better, but now that seems like the last thing I’d want.”
“There’s a rule,” Jack said. “If you’re a department head, you need to be within fifteen miles of the base.”
“Does your house qualify for that?” she asked.
“Well, it used to be ten,” he said. “But I wasn’t going to move.”
“There are some nice complexes on this side of town,” Daniel said. “You won’t have any trouble.”
“I have nothing with me,” she said. “It’s all very strange. No car, no home, no clothes, even.”
Jack pulled into the pizza place parking lot and parked.
“Stay here,” he said. “I’ll go.”
As soon as Jack closed the door, Daniel said, “I think he misses you.”
“I’m serious. He hasn’t dated anyone since you left. When I suggested doing a background check on you to see if you qualified for the program, he pushed through the paperwork himself and you know how Jack and paperwork usually goes.”
“I’m not nineteen anymore, Daniel,” she said. “It’s too late to pick up where we left off even if we wanted to, and he’s my boss!”
“Is that really so much different than when he-”
“Shut up,” she said, sulking. She did feel momentarily nineteen again, like she’d gone right back in time to where they ate pizza and had sleepovers and looked longingly across the room at one another.
“Give him a chance,” Daniel said. “Let him explain. He’s different now, he’s better. Remember what he was like back then? Let him be better now.”
“All right,” she said.
“I know we disappeared, but we came and got you back, isn’t that what matters?” Daniel said.
“Well you know people call, they don’t just, like, abduct you out of your life,” she said.
Jack came out of the restaurant door with one of those pre-made pizzas that you cook in your own oven and a two-liter of soda. Sam leaned across to push open the door for him and accepted the soda and then the pizza to carry on her lap.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s give this a shot.”
Sam didn’t want to just fall back into old habits and routines, but it was alarmingly easy to do so. Instead of hanging out on campus or in their little house or at Jack’s place, they all had the base to congregate at and by the time Sam bought a car, found a place to live, and had her stuff arrive from Washington, she realized she’d forgotten to keep being mad.
For one, everyone was too busy to do much besides work and sleep and she’d been piling trying to have a place to live and a car to drive on top of that. When she did have a moment to think, she generally spent it reading back reports on the Stargate program and past missions and when she thought about talking to Daniel outside of the scope of work, he was on another planet or off the base.
As for Jack, he seemed to be maintaining the same professional distance that she projected at him. She called him Sir, and he called her Carter or Dr. Carter if General Hammond was nearby. She hadn’t stayed long at his house that first night and hadn’t gone back since. It had been too weird, too difficult.
Now it was a Sunday and a rare day off. She was in her new apartment and the moving guys had just piled all her stuff from Washington in the small living room. She had her bed and a chair, but the couch had been Stacy’s and as she tiptoed through the piles, looking at what she had, she realized she had only half an apartment. She had plates and silverware, but the pots and pans had all been Stacy’s, too. She sighed, mentally making a list of stuff she’d have to buy.
Daniel was due to come over and help her unpack and when she heard a knock on the door, she rolled her eyes.
“Finally,” she said, pulling open the door. “You’re like an hour and a half... oh.”
“You’re not Daniel,” she said.
“I know,” he said. “He sends his regrets but something came up. I offered to come lend you a hand.”
“You didn’t have to do that, sir,” she said.
“Call me Jack, for crying out loud,” he said. “We’re not at work.”
“It’s just very odd,” she said. “Well, come in, I guess. It’s a mess.”
“Yikes,” he said, looking around.
“I know it’s small but I figured why pay a high rent for space I’ll never use because I’m at work all the time.” She shrugged.
“It’s nice,” he said. “What can I do?”
“You don’t have to stay, I...”
“Please,” he said. “I’d like to help. I’d like to...um, help.” He’d sounded like he was going to say something else for a moment.
“The bed is pretty heavy,” she said. “I could use help moving that into the bedroom, I suppose.”
“Great,” he said. “Hey, I just wanted to say that I’m sorry about before.”
“Before what?” she said, shoving a huge box of dishes across the carpet to make a path for the bed.
“When I didn’t go with you,” he said.
She stood up, brushed some sweaty hair out of her eyes. “Oh.”
“I should’ve gone,” he said. “I should’ve called. I should’ve written.”
“Yeah,” she said.
“So sorry about that.”
“I accept your apology,” she said. “But if you hired me to come work out here because you thought we could just-”
“No,” he said. “I hired you because you’re still the smartest person I ever met and I think you’ll keep my people alive.”
“Good,” she said and then added. “Sir.”
He smirked and she felt it low in her gut.
It tooks about six months for SG-1 to not come home. They missed their first check-in, and their second, and when Hammond called to try to make contact, they didn’t respond to their radios.
“Send the new MALP through, sir,” Sam suggested. She’d been working on extending radio range and increasing armor on the latest prototype. Hammond glanced at her and nodded. He never seemed surprised to see her out of the lab, anymore. Last month, they’d opened another branch of Research and Development out in Nevada and it had really freed her up to spend a lot more time on Dialing Computer maintenance. Though she would consider Daniel her best friend on the base, she spent the most time with Siler, covered in grease and muck and carrying around tools.
SG-1 didn’t respond to the new MALP and only a few moments later, they lost the signal due to enemy fire.
Sam’s heart leapt up into her throat. Hammond would never send any help through the gate if it wasn’t safe.
“Try to raise them by radio every hour,” Hammond ordered.
After three days and still no sign of them, Hammond ordered her off the base.
“You’re too tired to be of any use to me here,” Hammond said. Sam didn’t have base quarters, but she did have a cot in her lab for cat naps.
“I will call you if you’re needed,” Hammond said. “Now go home, Doctor.”
She didn’t go home. She almost went home. She was heading home, her car pointed in the direction of home, but when she pulled up to the intersection, instead of going straight through toward her apartment complex, she got in the left turn lane. She was another mile down the road when she realized it.
She was driving to Jack’s.
She still had a key. He’d never asked for it back and she’d never given it and it had been on her keyring for all this time. She’d had six apartments and three cars in the time since she’d left Colorado, but still, she’d left his key there.
Now, she slipped it into the front door lock and it turned easily.
The house was dark and cold and smelled like garbage. She turned up the heat and flipped on some lights. She dropped her purse and kept her coat on until everything warmed up again. She took the garbage out of the kitchen and into the metal can outside and dragged it to the curb. There was a little snow on the ground, but mostly it was patches of ice and she nearly slipped on the way into the house.
She knew she shouldn’t be there, but instead of letting herself out and driving home, she opened the refrigerator and dumped the expired milk down the sink. She pulled the moldy old coffee filter out of the machine and rinsed it off for morning. She picked up all the mail spilled by the door and pulled out the junk. She left the rest for him on the kitchen table.
She watered his one plant before she realized it was fake.
“Maybe I am tired,” she muttered.
Upstairs seemed even colder. She looked around to see what had changed. He had a different comforter on his bed and a new shower curtain, but other than that, things looked the same.
She would shower, she decided, sleep here through the night. Either she would make up some excuse when he got home about gathering his mail or he would never come home and it wouldn’t matter.
In the shower, she felt herself choking up, but she didn’t cry.
She wiped the steam from the mirror and then pulled it open to reveal the cabinet behind and stopped, startled into inactivity. She reached in slowly and reached for the toothbrush holder.
A pink and teal toothbrush, still there. He’d kept her toothbrush for nine years.
“That is really gross,” she said and dropped it in the trash by the sink. Sweet, but totally disgusting.
Hammond didn’t call in the night and when she woke up she realized it was Sunday morning and she didn’t have to go to work. She would, but she could go in a little later. She checked her phone but she hadn’t missed any calls and the battery was getting low.
She was wearing a pair of his old sweat pants and one of his softest flannel shirts. She moped around in bed for a while, waking up, and then finally decided to make a little coffee before she headed home. She would make coffee and drink it while she straightened up and made sure it looked like she hadn’t stayed very long. Get mail, take out trash, water fake plant, go home. That’s what she did, if he ever asked.
She was standing at the sink, listening to the coffee pot steam and gurgle when the glass door opened around the side. He was in his leather jacket and jeans and apart from a wrist wrapped in ace bandage he looked okay - uninjured.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hi,” she said, her cheeks reddening with embarrassment. “I didn’t think...”
“I see that.”
“When did you get home?” she asked, crossing her arms.
“About nine hours ago. Doc Frasier just let me out.”
“Hammond said he’d call if you guys got back while I was gone,” she said.
“I see that,” she said. “Well, I’m glad you’re okay. And Daniel and the others?”
“We’re fine. Not my first stint in alien jail.”
“Good, good,” she said. “Well, I just came over to water your plants and stuff.”
“I really hope you didn’t,” he said, glancing at the plastic ficus.
“Just a little,” she said. “On accident.”
“Okay, just let me get out of your hair,” she said.
“Hey, Carter,” he said. “Want to stay for coffee?”
“Okay,” she said.
“You could stay longer,” he said.
“Okay,” she said.
“You could stay forever?” he asked hopefully.
“Jack, I...” she said, and then stopped herself. This was what she’d wanted, this was the only time she’d ever been really happy, this was what she’d thought about for years and years. “Okay.”
“Yeah?” he asked. She nodded.
He closed the door behind him, stepped up to her.
“You kept my toothbrush,” she said, looking at his mouth.
“You didn’t use it, right?” he asked.
“No,” she said.
“Good,” he said and kissed her.
Daniel was asleep on the couch when Sam got home from work. Jack was out on the patio grilling, she could smell the meat burning.
She ruffled Daniel’s hair and went up the stairs to change.
It was just getting dark, so she climbed up onto the roof to look through the telescope while the smoke from the barbecue spiraled up and into the sky.