Sam Beckett blinked.
He was in some kind of playroom, only there wasn't much to play with. A couple of balls, a rag doll, some blocks.
He looked around. Several children were playing games. Some sat rocking, wriggling their fingers mesmerically in front of their faces while others were confined to wheel chairs. The last were cerebral palsy victims, mostly, he realized.
In front of him were paper, pencils and crayons. Sam looked at the work on the paper. The lettering, and for that matter the sentences, looked like the work of an average teenager. He frowned and looked around again.
This was a home for the handicapped. What Sam couldn't fathom was why they were such a disparate group.
He wondered who he was.
"John," a boy's voice said behind him. "Wanna play snap?"
Sam turned. "Me?"
A little girl laughed. The boy next to her punched his shoulder.
"Silly," he said. "Rosie wants to play snap."
"Okay," Sam agreed. It was also the best way to learn more about the leap.
Sam learned from Rosie's occasional remonstration during the game that the boy's name was Sean. It appeared that the three of them, John, Rosie and Sean were friends.
After the second game came to a rowdy, argumentative end, Sam ventured a question to Rosie.
"How old are you?"
She worked hard to make eight fingers stay where she wanted them, then held them up.
"Okay, you're eight," Sam repeated. "And Sean? How old are you?"
"He knows you're really fifteen, Rosie," Sean told his small friend. "And you know I'm eleven," he added proudly.
About right, Beckett decided. Sean seemed to be mildly developmentally disabled, but more than functional for an eleven year old. Rosie was small, petite and undeveloped. A Down's syndrome child, she didn't look fifteen. She looked about ten.
"Betcha don't know how old I am," Sam dared them, wondering if he was going to revisit Jimmy's world again.
"Betcha I do," Sean retorted. "You're nine."
Sam started, then reached behind himself for the paper. He looked at it again. The small, neat print, the poly-syllabic words, the poetic description of some fantasy journey were not the scratchings of a nine year old.
"I'm nine?" He asked. "Did I do this?"
"Sure," Sean told him. "You're always writing stories to tell Rosie when she can't sleep."
Sam studied her with a medical eye. She didn't look well. "Rosie has trouble sleeping?"
Sean nodded silently.
"Do I have trouble sleeping?"
"Nope," the little boy said gleefully. "You walk funny."
"I do?" Sam asked, surprised. "Why?"
"I dunno," Sean said matter-of-factly. "But you swim good. Rosie doesn't swim good."
There was a sudden discordant chorus of 'hello Miss McAllister' and all the various attempts at it, throughout the room. The three turned together.
A woman in a white uniform was speaking to the children, checking nappies, tubes, catheters and tucking in clothes mechanically and efficiently as she went.
When she reached them Sam stood up and stretched his legs.
"And how are we today?" She asked the group.
Rosie smiled up at the woman. "Hello Miss 'Cal'ster."
"We played snap. John let Rosie win," Sean reported.
Miss McAllister smiled back. "Again?" She asked Sam, but strangely without humor.
"She's so little," Sam said automatically..."I mean--"
"I know what you mean."
Sam read her name plate. Veronica McAllister. If she was a nurse or a teacher and he was only nine he could pretty much ask any question he wanted and get away with it. She didn't, however, exactly exude warmth and understanding.
"Why am I here, Miss McAllister?" he ventured.
Veronica McAllister's eyes widened. "Why do you want to know that?"
"I w..walk funny," Sam improvised. "Why is that? Is there something wrong with my legs?"
"No, John, your legs are fine. Your body just doesn't always work the way you want it to, that's all."
"I have cerebral palsy," Sam realized.
Her eyes narrowed. "Where did you hear that? Tell me who said that to you?!"
"Nobody did," Sam replied, surprised. "I know what it is. It's when the brain is damaged, either through asphyxia at birth, or disease in the mother, radiation, Rh-incomatabili...ty." He stopped, realizing that he'd made a mistake.
"Somebody has been talking to you," McAllister repeated. "Tell me who it is or you won't get any dinner tonight, John. Tell me now."
Sam did not like the tone she was taking with an innocent nine year old child. "I told you," he reiterated. "Nobody here told me. I know what I know. What I don't know is why I'm here."
"Fine. Go hungry, John. That makes three times this month," she muttered. "I thought you were smarter than this."
"If this is how you usually treat these kids, it's little wonder," Sam was stung to reply.
In short order he found himself hustled down the corridor by the elbow and shown to his 'room,' a tiny four-bunk dormitory.
Sam watched morosely as the door closed. There was only one thing worse than messing up at the beginning of a leap, and that was doing it twice...
The room was very spartan, though there was a bureau with pictures on and a heater of sorts for the winter. Sam was about to explore the bureau when the chamber door opened.
"What took you so long?" he demanded, even before he turned.
"I was looking for something," Calavicci said flatly.
Sam turned. "What?"
"Never mind," he said in a tone that left no room for inquiry. "Your name is John Simpson Bradley and you are nine years old. That's the youngest you've ever been, Sam. You have mild cerebral palsy--"
"I know," Sam said darkly.
"--And you don't belong here. You're here because you were slow to walk, slow to potty and you aren't exactly what the average filthy rich family in 1953 wants to call their own. You walk with a slightly staggered gait and your speech is a little slurred. You do have pretty good control of your right arm, which is the one John does all his writing with. You're here for him, by the way. You have to prove that he doesn't belong in this place. If you don't the kid never gets out. He doesn't deserve to be here, Sam. There's no record of him having any kind of mental disability and he's more than functional enough physically to cope in the outside world."
Sam nodded. "Where am I?"
"You're in one of those private 'Homes' for the mentally handicapped, and whoever else they feel like throwing in here, just outside Rochester, New York. It's August 12, 1953. Back in Indiana you're a bouncing baby boy."
"But here I'm a kid trapped in an institution just because he's unwanted--" Sam said angrily.
"Yeah," Al said quietly. "I know."
Sam looked up slowly. "You do know, don't you? I'm sorry,
Calavicci shook his head. "Forget it."
"You have a sister--"
"Had," Al corrected. "And yes, somewhere in this state she's in a place just like this," he added.
"Somewhere?" Sam asked, surprised.
Al's expression grew bleak. "When we were seperated I went to an orphanage in Manhattan and they took her to a place in the Bronx. After that all I know is that when she turned sixteen, they put her in an adult institution. I had a hell of a time finding her at all."
Sam swallowed. He remembered. That was where Trudy died. In a bleak place outside Syracuse. The place where Al had gone to bring her home when he was nineteen...
"I'm sorry, Al. I forgot," he said bleakly.
"I know," Al told him. "Listen, you might as well try and get some sleep. Nurse Ratched out there isn't known for changing her mind. If you get confined, it's for the night."
"Yeah. Ziggy says that in about three years from now she confines a patient for refusing to eat and doesn't bother have anyone check on him before morning. A ten year old autistic kid, a little boy, died of peritonitis in the night because she was too busy being the iron maiden to try and find out why he hadn't been eating and the other kids didn't know enough to get help. There's an inquest and she gets fired. She never works in any kind of health service again."
Sam closed his eyes and lowered his head. "How am I supposed to help John?" he asked, moved somehow, to be wearing his own father's name, even for just a little while.
"Ziggy's not sure, but in a couple of days some researchers are going to be coming through here doing tests on a lot of the kids, compiling data, making comparisons, stuff like that. She thinks maybe if you can impress one of them it might get John out of here."
"What..what happened the first time?"
Al consulted the handlink. "Ah, you--he, er John didn't do the tests. He was caught fighting and confined to his room again. He missed everything. According to Ziggy he died in 1962 from a staph infection in an adult institution in Jersey city after contracting pneumonia."
"No," Sam whispered. "Not this time."
By nine in the evening it was shaping to be a long and uncomfortable night. Two of the children in the other bunks snored. Sam's stomach growled with hunger and his mind was racing, all of which made sleep almost impossible.
He was about pull his pillow over his head yet again when the door opened a little. He sat up, blinking.
A nurse slipped into the room with a tray. She was young, perhaps twenty-three or twenty-four, with long, straw colored hair braided and pinned back. She had a round, kind face, at least in the dull glow of the night-light.
"John?" she said softly.
"Here," Sam acknowledged.
"I brought you some food. You must be starved."
He watched her bring the tray to his bunk. Bread, real grilled beef, and vegetables. Milk. Her meal, he guessed. It smelled like heaven.
"Thank you Nurse--" He checked her badge, squinting in the poor light. "Nurse Tanner. I'm starved."
"I know," she said sadly. "You mustn't tell anyone, but I couldn't let you go without a meal. Not again."
Sam looked up at her, his mouth full of beef and potato. He chewed swiftly and swallowed.
"I don't want to get you into trouble," he told her, warmed by her innate gentleness and the knowledge that the children, and John in particular, had at least one real ally.
She smiled. "Don't worry," she told him. "If I get into trouble it will be my own fault--unless you tell on me."
"Never," Sam replied around a chunk of bread.
Tanner remained until he'd cleared the tray, waiting to remove the evidence of their collusion.
"John, I know how hard it is for you, but I wish you'd try harder to stay out of Nurse McAllister's way. I hate to see you in trouble so often."
Sam nodded as he handed the glass back. "I'll try, I promise. It's just--this place..."
Tanner nodded. "Well, neither you nor I can do much to change that," she told him wistfully and slid the tray onto the side table. "Now snuggle down and I'll tuck you in."
Sam did as he was told. He couldn't help a smile as he slid down. It felt weird but somehow comforting to feel the blankets tighten across his shoulders and the mattress lift as they were tucked under, almost exactly as they had when he was a small child--when mom...or dad...had done exactly the same thing every night.
When she was gone he closed his eyes, certain he would not sleep.
By the time sunlight filtered in the window Sam had slept solidly for nine hours.
When a couple of the boys stirred and rose he followed them to the bathroom. He found himself a cubicle with a catch on it and locked himself in. Fifteen hours was a long time between trips to the bathroom.
He managed a shower and a change of clothes before any of the other children appeared at the ablutions, and while they were absent from the room took the opportunity to look through his things. There was very little beyond a hazy black and white picture of John's parents, a few toys and clothes from home and a journal the boy had been keeping, which he found under the lining of the drawer.
As he read the first childish scrawl, then increasingly more clear and mature handwriting, Sam grew steadily more distressed and angry. John's diary of his time in this place was a chronicle of loneliness, abuse, longing and relentless repetition. Every day varied almost not at all from the previous one, except in the probability of another punishment.
A pattern became clear to Sam. John and Sean spent a great deal of their time looking after Rosie and defending her both from bullies and from Nurse McAllister's wrath in the event of any accident or wrong doing, particularly when it came to Rosie's problems with nightmares and insomnia. Each took turns creeping down to her room to check that she was all right before turning in for the night, always at the risk of being caught by the night nurse. Sam smiled at the reference to Cheryl Tanner, whom John referred to as an 'angel,' whom he wished could be in charge and on days as well, instead of Nurse McAllister.
Breakfast was an interesting meal. Everyone ate together in a conglomeration of tables, chairs, high chairs, wheel chairs, plates, trays and general chaos. Tube feeds, bottle feeds, and spoon feeds were done amidst a great deal of chatter, crying, tantrums, laughter and general mayhem.
Older, relatively able children, including Sam, were given cereal and milk and allowed to feed themselves pretty much untended, for better or worse...
When it was done Beckett was more than glad to be out of the chaos, and even better than that, out of the building. The playground was small, and not all the children were allowed outside, but John and a number of others, including Rosie and Sean, were.
Beckett let the other two win at tag and hide-and-seek and listened to their imaginings as they sat and, with a little prompting, cloud-gazed until the bell rang to end their brief time in the sun.
Inside Sam discovered that he was required to attend classes. He also discovered that his young friends were not in any of them. In fact it quickly became apparent that the dozen or so children in those classes bore no mental handicap, despite the frailty of their bodies.
By afternoon he was back in the playroom again, wondering why he'd not sighted a physiotherapist. He was pretending to read and contemplating John's future when a commotion broke out. It was Sean and a child Sam hadn't seen before, nose to nose, Sean placing himself between Rosie and the other boy.
Beckett got to his feet instinctively, then hesitated. John had been caught and confined for fighting. This was probably the incident.
"Leave her alone," Sean ordered.
"She can't even tie her shoe laces," the tow-headed youngster sneered.
"I can too!" Rosie shot back. " 'n' I can do buckles too."
"Anybody can do buckles," the boy retorted.
"Go away," Sean repeated.
The boy turned. "When I'm ready. Stupid. She's stupid. She didn't win the game. I won the game," he muttered.
Sean lunged. "She's not stupid," he cried. "Don't call her stupid!"
It was then that Sam realized that the main protagonist was paralyzed down one side. His left arm hung limply at one side and left leg dragged as he turned back to retaliate.
"Sean!" Sam called.
Sean stopped mid-wrestle and turned to Beckett. "What?" he called back.
"Bring Rosie over here. If you get caught fighting who is going to play cards with us?"
Sean rose unquestioningly and ushered Rosie towards Beckett, leaving his adversary on the ground blinking in surprise.
Just a few moments later Veronica MacAllister arrived to find all four children engrossed in a game of snap. When she sailed through wordlessly and departed for parts unknown Sam exhaled with relief.
He might just have given John a chance to get out of this place, although, he mused as Bruce, the tow-headed bully, called snap and took his cards, if that was so, why hadn't he leaped?
With evening and bed-time came Sam's turn to check on Rosie. He slipped along the corridor feeling decidedly vulnerable, and hoping he wasn't doing anything to jeopardise John's chances of being assessed by the visitors due the next day.
At the door to Rosie's room he peered reluctantly into the night-light illuminated darkness listening for sounds of distress or fear. At first the only sounds were those of one child's impressive snores and the ticking of an old-fashioned clock. Before he could turn to go, however, the sounds of quiet weeping, almost whimpering, could be heard between snores.
Sam crept into the room feeling like some kind of prowler, glad that his physical aura was that of a nine year old. Rosie's bunk was a low one, farthest from the door.
"Rosie, it's John. Everything's going to be all right," he whispered.
A small hand reached out and clasped one of his, but she didn't reply.
Sam felt her gradually relax and listened to her breathing slow and grow almost rythmical. In a few minutes he knew she was asleep. He also knew that something was wrong. Her pulse, taken surreptitiously as her hand lay in his, the breathing and a number of other symptoms assessed by Sam's expert medical eye and ear in the half-light, added up to deep trouble.
Back in his own room he reflected on the loneliness of a little girl who just needed someone to hold her hand. He shook his head and was about to close his eyes when the chamber door opened close to his bunk.
"Al?" he hissed. "What's wrong?"
"Wrong? Why does something have to be wrong every time I show up?" Al muttered, surprisingly irritably.
"Sorry," Sam said, not in the least apologetic, and closed his eyes as if going to sleep.
Calavicci rolled his eyes. "The good news is you stopped John from getting into a fight today so now he sees the visitors tomorrow and the next day. The bad news it doesn't make any difference. He doesn't get out."
"Then why am I here?"
"Ziggy doesn't know. She still thinks you're supposed to help John somehow. The kid doesn't belong here."
"Here," muttered Sam and opened his eyes again. "Have you found out anything about this place, Al? I still haven't seen a physiotherapist, there don't appear to be any classes for the developmentally disabled kids and damned few doctors or specialists for any of them--"
"Not much," Al admitted. "This is a private institution, more like a dumping ground for unwanted kids than a school or a home. It's the kind of place the rich dump unwanted 'problems' and pay lots of money for them to be kept out of sight for a long time. A lot of the kids in here are under John Does. John Simpson Bradley, however, is your real name. That's why Ziggy was able to access his medical records."
"What about Sean and Rosie?"
"Who?" Al asked.
"Some kids I play--I mean spend time with."
Al chuckled and punched something into the handlink. "No Rosie. No Sean. No personal histories, apart from basic medical details, available on any of the kids. A lot of records were lost, but it also seems to have been a policy to isolate these kids from their own families. Probably why most of them are here," he added roughly.
"What happens if something goes wrong...an earthquake, or flood or something? Identification? Notification?"
Al winced. "We don't know yet. That's the bad news, Sam. Ziggy's been digging through newspaper files from most of this and the surrounding areas, and she's found reports of a fire in Vistaview in about five days from now. That's how most of the records were lost. There were no casualty reports in the papers and only a brief reference to the fact that three fire engines were called out to the blaze. She's still trying to get into police and medical records. It was a long time ago."
"So we don't know what happens to any of the kids? Was the place closed or what?"
Al shook his head again. "We don't know what happened to the rest of the kids, Sam, not without tying Ziggy up for days, but the place was closed. I suppose most of the parents made other arrangements and payed even more money to get their kids into other private institutions."
Sam snorted. "Al, I think Rosie has a heart problem. There are kids here who need physiotherapy, who need one-on-one nursing, teaching, care. I haven't seen any of that yet. This is like a prison for kids, and no-one seems to give a damn. I read John's journal. He knows what this place is and it's stifling him. He needs challenges, stimulation. He needs to get into the mainstream education system, to go to college to be whatever is in him to be, or he'll just wither away."
Al's expression was unreadable. "Ziggy says that he still dies in 'Jersey in 62. If nothing changes he'll be placed in a school in Connecticutt temporarily after the fire and then...'Jersey."
"No," Sam whispered. "Does Ziggy know exactly who is on staff here? How many doctors? How many physiotherapists? How many psychologists?"
Al consulted the link again. "Two doctors, including the guy who runs the place, seven nursing staff, four cleaners, one staff psychiatrist, one physiotherapist contracted to work here one Thursday every month, two receptionists, three cooks and four kitchen hands. Most of the non-medical work is contracted. Y'know, the laundry, the grounds, the supply of food, that kind of stuff."
"This is 1953, Sam. And this place is run for profit, not comfort. Besides, nobody wanted to know about disabled kids. In this time they were still retards, mongoloids, spastics, freaks. Very few of these private setups had full time physiotherapy programs and even fewer had serious education programs for the developmentally disabled. The average life expectancy for a Down's syndrome child was fourteen, give or take a couple of years," he added bitterly.
Sam shook his head. "I have to get help for Rosie, Al. I'm not sure her heart problem has even been diagnosed by anyone up to now."
"If you could find out what her full name is--"
"I can try," Beckett told him. He remembered something else. "Did you find what you were looking for?"
Al started. "Oh, ah, no," he said absently. "History repeats itself," he added more to himself than Beckett.
Al blinked. "Sorry," he said quietly. "It's this leap."
Al shrugged. "We've never been this close before. I mean, we're in the right state, the right environment, everything, and I still can't find her."
Beckett frowned. "How is that possible?"
"If I knew that I'd have found her before she died," Al snapped.
"What does Ziggy say?"
"Ziggy says I should be concentrating on you and not my own personal projects," Al drawled bitterly. "She also says Trudy is on the records of the dump in the Bronx until 1951. After that she disappears off the face of the Earth as far as records are concerned, until four months before I went to get her from that place outside Syracuse. Their records show her arrival in September '53 and her death in November '53 but nothin' else."
"I'm sorry, Al," Sam said, and meant it.
Calavicci finally smiled. "Get some sleep, Sam. You've got a big day tomorrow. Somehow you have to change history so that this kid you've leaped into has a better chance at life than my sister had. He's a great kid, by the way, Sam. He reminds me of you in a lot of ways."
Beckett smiled back. "Take care of him," he said.
Al nodded. "I'm going to run some more scenarios on tomorrow's situation and see what else I can get from Ziggy about that fire."
Sam watched him disappear through the chamber door before closing his eyes and rolling over in the cramped bunk.
Beckett watched the observers interacting with the children the following day and realized with a great deal of sadness that even the 'so called' experts of the day had little real idea of the needs, desires and feelings of handicapped children, regardless of whether the challenge was physical or mental...
He managed to single out, by observation, a paediatrics specialist from the group and moved in on him when the opportunity arose. How a nine year old could broach the subject of heart defects without being dismissed immediately was a question Sam's mind raced to answer. He had to get help for Rosie. Even without equipment it was obvious that her condition was gradually deteriorating.
He watched the fifty-ish doctor finish some notes before speaking. The name on his name-plate was Oakridge.
"How do you know if someone has a heart problem?" he asked.
The greying, owl-eyed man looked up at him, over his Ben Franklin spectacles.
"That's a big question for a little boy," he pointed out.
Sam nodded. "I read about it once. I think my friend is sick."
"Is that so?" Oakridge asked, amused. "And just how can you tell that, young feller?"
Sam took a deep breath and said a small prayer before launching into a detailed account of his observations of the child over the last twenty-four hours.
"I'm scared. I don't want Rosie to die," he finished, hoping it would take the edge off his very un-childlike presentation.
"Well, now," the paediatrician replied. "I don't think you need to be afraid, boy. You seem to be remarkably bright for a place like this. Has someone been filling your head with medical jargon?"
Sam frowned. "No. No sir. I can show her to you," he countered, ran and grasped Rosie's hand, dragging her away from her happy preoccupation with the snap cards, Sean and Bruce.
"This is Rosie," he announced when they reached the doctor. "See, she's not well--"
"She looks perfectly fine to me," Oakridge observed.
"That's not funny," Sam was stung to retort. "She needs care and she needs it now."
"And who do you think you are to be telling a doctor who is sick and who isn't?" the older man growled.
"Look at her," Sam pleaded.
The doctor rolled his eyes ceilingward and finally beckoned to Rosie to come closer. After several long minutes of examination he looked over his glasses at Sam again.
"I'm going to want to talk to you later, boy. What's your name?"
"John Bradley, sir."
"Well, John Bradley, you were right about one thing. This young lady needs attention and soon. Not that I'm ready to confirm your diagnosis, you understand," he added mock-seriously, "but there are grounds for concern."
Sam bit back an acid reply. "Thank you, sir," he said instead, wanting very badly all of a sudden, to punch something, or someone...hard.
Rosie grinned up at the doctor. "Will I get a lollipop?" she asked happily.
"Very likely," the paedatrician told her.
Sam saw the bleak look that came into the man's eyes as he looked down at the child and all of the anger suddenly went out of him. He knew. The old man knew. And there wasn't anything he could do...
Or anything Beckett could do. Not as a nine year old boy. "Where will she go?" he asked.
"Why, nowhere, son," the doctor told him. "A friend of mine will come up here and examine her."
"But, for the surgery--"
"Surgery? There's no need for surgery."
"That's not true," Sam persisted. "Without surgery she's going to d--"
"Don't say it," Oakridge interrupted. He smiled at Rosie. "Rosie, the boys are waiting for you to finish your card game," he reminded her.
When she was out of earshot he turned back to Sam. "Boy, if you want to be a doctor when you grow up the first thing you need to do is learn what you can and cannot say in front of a patient," he scolded.
"But the surgery--?" Sam persisted.
"Look, I'm not going to discuss medical details with a nine year old--!"
"She has a heart defect. It's obvious from the symptoms. Without surgery to close or repair the abnormality she's going to die."
Oakridge's brown eyes studied John Bradley in quizzical silence. "How can you possibly know so much, boy?" he asked, half to himself.
"I read too much," Sam retorted, his patience growing thin. "You aren't going to do the surgery, are you?"
Oakridge looked into John's ebony eyes and shook his head. "I can't. You're talking about something even the best cardio-vascular surgeon in America hasn't successfully achieved yet."
Sam tried hard to remember, himself, when hole-in-the-heart surgery first became successful but there was nothing there. The leap had swallowed it.
"I could tell you how," he said desolately. "Only you wouldn't believe me."
Oakridge supressed a desire to laugh at the child. He was curious. "Tell me, anyway," he said quietly.
Beckett described in detail the delicate procedures to either surgically repair the defect he suspected, or to graft a section of tissue over a 'hole' between the chambers of the heart, even down to the last piece of equipment required.
The doctor blinked. "Incredible," he said softly, then focused on the boy. "How...I mean, who told you--?"
"Let's just say that for a little while at least, that I'm not John Bradley," Sam offered. "For Rosie's sake, I'm a doctor, from the future, who knows the procedure, who knows what to do to help her. Only I can't, because I'm stuck in the body of a nine year old. But you can. And that's the only explanation I can give you right now."
Oakridge chuckled. "That's one hell of an imagination you've got there, boy. I don't know who you've been talking to, but it all makes perfect sense."
"Then you'll help her?"
"I'll tell my friend what you said. And perhaps he'll try," he replied dourly.
Sam sighed. It was the best he could hope for. He nodded and looked across at Rosie laughing as she called snap and the boys broke into howls of protestation yet again because it wasn't a snap at all.
It wasn't fair. It was never fair...
"You're a bright boy, John. You have a mind that should be nutured, and encouraged," Oakridge told him. "I don't know what your parents could be thinking, leaving you in a place like this."
"Me either," Sam said sourly. "I want to go to a real school, and to college. There's hardly anything wrong with me."
"Amen to that," laughed the doctor. "Good luck, boy. And I hope you bring your young friend a miracle, because she needs one," he added, genuine regret in his voice.
Sam watched him move on to a small autistic boy before hanging his head and snapping a pencil in frustration. He'd achieved a great deal more than he expected to, but not nearly enough...
The chamber door opened.
"Al," he whispered. "Am I glad to see you. I got Oakridge to get one of his cronies to look at Rosie--"
"Rosie--? Oh yeah, your little friend," Al said absently. "I finally worked out who she is from the register. Her name is Rosalie James. She's a Down's syndrome child with a mental age of about eight or nine. She and a few other kids were transferred here by the government from an upstate mental hospital when it was closed down by the health department. The records mysteriously vanished before the enquiry got underway," he added disgustedly. "So Ziggy couldn't trace any of their histories back any further. They're here through lack of space in government institutions. There was literally nowhere else they could put them. And since they're all wards of the state the government is footing the bill for this supposedly temporary gig. Ziggy's also been digging some more on this place. She says that there were five admissions to the burns ward of the local hospital the day of the fire. Two of them died. One was a nurse and the other was an eleven year old child named Michael Sean Rafferty. Your Sean. That's the name on the register. That's why Ziggy missed it before. He was given a pauper's burial," he added grimly.
"No," Sam whispered, his face growing hard. "I not going to let anything happen to him, either."
Another round of noisy arguing ensued behind him and the sound of a high-pitched but gloriously happy laugh.
Al paled. He stepped around Sam, his eyes keen, his expression haunted.
"Al? What is it?" Sam asked, following his gaze.
"That's Sean," he said when he realized who Al was staring at. "And the redhead is Bruce and the cause of all the noise is Rosie."
Al didn't reply. He was walking toward the trio. He was within a couple of feet when Rosie looked up.
"Hello," she said, her soft brown eyes watching him curiously.
"Hello. My name is Albert."
"I know," the little girl said matter-of-factly and smiled.
Al smiled back, his mouth having difficulty maintaining the shape.
"Who brought you to this place, Rosie?" he asked gently.
"Do you know who I am?"
"You're Albert," she told him obligingly. "I miss Albert."
"I know, sweetheart," Calavicci told her, his vision blurring. "I missed you too."
The boys had long since stopped watching Rosie talk to herself. They had resumed their game, having filched all of her cards while she was preoccupied.
Puzzled, Sam came to Al's side as he spoke to the child.
"Rosie is a pretty name," he told her.
"That's what Doctor Jamie said," Rosie observed.
"Doctor Jamie?" Al prompted.
Rosie nodded. "He said Trudy was a pretty name. He went away. Then they gived me a special name."
"Why would they do that?"
"What else did Doctor Jamie say?"
Rosie began to lose interest, her attention shifting to the game she was missing.
"Rosie," Sam said quietly. "Al wants to know why you went away."
She turned back to Calavicci and blinked again. "Albert went away," she said solemnly. "Doctor Jamie went away too."
"Who is Albert?" Al asked in Italian.
"The best stick-ball player in America," Rosie recited automatically in the same tongue.
Sam looked from Al's tear-filled eyes to the little girl earnestly explaining things to them, and back to Al again.
"And what was your old name, sweetheart?" Al asked gently in English, a catch in his voice.
She thought about it, her small face screwed up tightly. Finally she looked up and grinned. "Trudy. The beautifulest name in the world," she recalled proudly.
"It still is," Calavicci said hoarsely, shocked by the pain of hearing his own words quoted back to him after so very many years...
Sam reached out automatically to put a hand on his friend's shoulder, then stopped short. His features grew taut and his eyes pained as he withdrew it again.
Al nodded. "It's her," he confirmed. "It's Trudy."
Beckett swallowed. Rosie was Al's sister? Then she really was fifteen. "She must get transferred to Syracuse after the fire," Sam realized aloud.
"What did you say about her before--?" Calavicci demanded suddenly. "Something medical--?"
Sam glanced around to make certain no-one was watching him talk to himself.
"I got Doctor Oakridge to arrange for someone to look at her. Al, she has a heart condition."
"I never knew that. Nobody told me--"
"Al, you were both wards of the state...and besides, no-one here seems to have either known, or if they did, didn't believe it would make a difference--"
"And now that they know? What are they going to do about it now?"
Beckett closed his eyes. "They don't know how to do the surgery, Al. This kind of heart defect can go undetected for years, then appear and get progressively worse during adolescence. In our time it's often detected after birth--or picked up in the early years because the symptoms are better understood--but here in 1953..."
"You've gotta do something, Sam. She can't survive pneumonia with a heart defect."
Beckett drew back to a quiet corner, concerned that someone would see him talking to Al and get the wrong idea about John.
"I know, Al. We'll see what happens when Doctor Oakridge's associate looks at her."
Al nodded, his eyes only for the sister he hadn't seen in almost fifty years.
"Al, I just thought of something. If she can see you, why doesn't she see me?"
"Who says she doesn't?"
"But she accepts me as John--"
"She probably accepts you as someone called John. Trudy wasn't anywhere near as functional as Jimmy was, Sam. Call her."
He did and she trotted over to them without question.
"Honey, I wan't you to tell me what your friend here looks like," Al asked her gently.
"Big," she said. "And I like this."
She was pointing at the grey curl in Sam's forelock.
"She can see you, Sam. Like I said, she just accepts you as someone called John, or even John Bradley. As far as she's concerned John Simpson Bradley could come through that door any time now. She'll be fine if you don't make a thing of it."
Sam smiled at Trudy. "Thank you," he told her. "I think your hair is very pretty too."
"Come play snap," she demanded, their questions already forgotten.
"I will real soon. I have to talk to Al first."
"Albert is here?" she asked vaguely.
"Yeah, I'm right here, honey," Calavicci told her.
She looked up at him. "Doctor Jamie said Albert went away. Daddy went away..." she added almost to herself before drifting off to rejoin the game with the others again.
Al was watching her with a face like stone. "I'm going to find out who the hell this Doctor Jamie character is--" He stopped and wiped his cigar hand over his eyes. "I have to go for a while Sam," he added hoarsely. "I'll be back later."
He was gone before Beckett could even try to reply...
It was two days before anyone came to look at Trudy. Sam was worried about her. History might have said that she survived another six months but Sam no longer trusted the records.
Al had arrived at the Syracuse home too late to find anything but a death certificate and the word of the system that his sister had died of pneumonia.
When it was time to be examined, Trudy refused to go without Sam. And when it became apparent that she wouldn't budge without him and that any attempt to try only ellicited an excruciatingly noisy tantrum, he was allowed to accompany her.
He watched as the broad, craggy specialist examined her carefully. More carefully and thoroughly than Sam had expected, under the circumstances.
When the doctor was done he turned to Beckett. He wasn't much older than Sam himself was. "Are you the boy who spoke to Doctor Oakridge?"
Beckett nodded warily.
"Who told you this child was sick?"
"Nobody. The symptoms speak for themselves. The shortness of breath, stunted growth, the cyanosis, the fingernails, her heart--"
"Son, you may know the words, but there is no way you could understand what it all means at your age. Someone has put you up to this and we intend to find out who."
"But isn't Trudy's--I mean Rosie's--life more important than how I got the information?" Sam retorted, angered by the pettiness of their priorities.
"Who said anything about her life being in question?" the specialist demanded.
"I'm not stupid," Sam shot back. "I know what all the symptoms mean. Without corrective surgery she will die. I may only be a child but I know what I know. If anybody had ever bothered to check they'd know I was right. And if anybody ever bothered to find out they'd know I don't belong here. And neither do about half the other kids imprisoned in this place just because they're different."
Evan Llewellyn-Jones shot a look at the little girl, who was playing with the end of this stethoscope, oblivious to their conversation.
"This is not a prison," he said quietly. "You are here for your own good, to help you overcome your disability and to better prepare you to take your place in society."
Sam scowled. "Yeah, right, with one physiotherapy session a month if I'm lucky, minimal education, no interaction with the community and no family. That's really going to help me fit in outside this place." He took a deep, angry breath. "Why did you come here, if you're not going to help her?"
Llewellyn-Jones' face grew taut. "Geoff was right. You are an
"If wanting out of here is unusual, then yes I am," Beckett growled. "You avoided my question."
"I came to see you, John."
Evan Llewellyn-Jones looked down at the little girl, who'd taken herself over to the box of toys that always stayed in the corner of the infirmary.
"Rosie is a sweet child who has already lived past what we consider the normal life expectancy for a juvenile with her ...disability."
"That's not true. She has Down's Syndrome, not cancer. With the right medical care, and a lot of love, she could have pretty much the same quality of life as you or I--"
Llewellyn-Jones sighed. "Don't you understand, boy? There isn't the medical care available for the majority of mongoloid children. Most of them have more defects, more medical problems than any dozen other children their age."
Sam's eyes narrowed and his jaw tightened. The idiom of this day and age set his teeth on edge. Oakridge's generalizations made Trudy sound like a car that needed to be recalled.
"Sir, I know how to help Rosie," he persisted.
"Doctor Oakridge told me all about your medical talent," the specialist told him wryly. "But I'm afraid, while impressive, your--or whosever ideas they might be--are just that. Ideas. Medical technology is going to take some time to catch up to that bright young mind of yours."
Sam wanted to scream. "But you could do that surgery if you could just...if you could--"
"No I couldn't," Lewellyn-Jones told him with an air of finality. "You know, I never imagined that I'd ever find myself arguing medicine with a nine year old spastic child."
Beckett grabbed the examination table to stop himself from punching it, or the specialist. Frustration blurred his vision.
"She is going to die," he said angrily. "And all you can worry about is--is our disabilities..."
"John, you can't win this one. Don't you understand? I'd like more than anything to be able to help your friend. Why else do you think I agreed to look at her? But I can only do what technology allows me to do. I can give her medication, I can give instructions to the nurses to ensure better care and supervision. But I cannot cure this child."
Sam stared at him for a long moment, then turned away, his shoulders hunched.
A large hand rested itself on one of them. "It's not your fault, John. Life is sometimes unfair. It's the way things are."
But he was going to let Al down...again...
"You can't change things that aren't meant to be changed, Sam," a voice said behind him.
He wheeled, Llewellyn-Jones' hand slipping away.
Calavicci was drawn and pale.
"How long have you been there?"
"Long enough," he said quietly.
Rosie got to her feet and came to Al's side. "Are you going to play with us?" she asked.
"N...no, sweetheart, not right now," he told her gently, his eyes bleak. "I came to see John."
"Who is Al?" Llewellyn-Jones asked suspiciously.
Sam thought quickly, then shrugged. "He's Rosie's imaginery friend. It's a game we play. She likes other people to see him too."
The specialist subsided, his eyes still on Rosie, who was trying to snatch the flashing handlink from Al without success.
Al turned. "That was good, Sam," he said shakily.
Beckett met his friend's gaze, empathy and understanding in his gentle green eyes.
Calavicci's brown ones softened, then closed for a moment. He tapped the handlink. The chamber door opened and he stepped through it.
Sam listened to it close with the same finality as the closing of the specialist's mind, then turned back to the others. A memory was surfacing from a long forgotten cheese-hole.
"John H. Gibbon junior performed successful heart surgery this year on Cecilia...somebody, using the heart-lung machine he invented," he told Llewellyn-Jones in a rush. "The technology is there."
"That operation was the first successful one of it's kind, using cutting edge techniques. You expect me to be able to get access to that kind of technology and equipment for Rosie when I can't even get it for my own patients?"
Sam did punch the wall then. "If it's cutting edge, and still considered experimental, Rosie is exactly the kind of patient you want. She has no-one." The words hurt, even though Al was not there.
Trudy always had someone--Al--though neither she, nor anyone else, ever knew it...
Llewellyn-Jones appeared to consider something, but a moment later his head shook slowly from side to side.
"I'm sorry, John, but it just isn't possible at this time. They will look after her, I promise you. And the medication will relieve some of her symptoms."
"Until she catches pneumonia, or something else like it, and her heart can't take the strain!" Beckett snapped.
The specialist's face grew somber. "John, I think it's time you went to your classes. Rosie can go back to the play room now. There is nothing more I can do," he said sternly, closed his kit and left before Sam could argue again.
Al returned in the early afternoon to find Sam sitting on the playroom floor playing cards with Rosie.
"Aren't you supposed to be somewhere, or doing something?"
"Something," Beckett muttered. "Did you find out who this Doctor Jamie guy was?"
"Ah, yeah, sorta. His name is actually Gregory Jamison. He was on staff at the home that closed down--blew the whistle on it to be exact...the one where Trudy was before this place. Apparently he transferred to Syracuse right after the inquiry."
Sam frowned. "But I still don't understand why the kids' names were changed in the first place."
"That...well, Ziggy's been doing a little digging on that upstate investigation. It seems that when the records vanished the wards of the state had to be individually identified by staff. We confirmed that Michael Sean Rafferty is definitely Sean's real name. But a few, like Trudy, were mis-identified. Jamison being at Syracuse would explain how she came to have her own name back at the time of death."
Rosie looked up and grinned at her brother. "I winned again," she announced, then went on with her game.
"Good for you, Trudy," he told her. "You keep winning, honey." He turned back to Sam. "So why aren't you doing the stuff John should be doing?"
"I couldn't face those stupid classes today, Al. They aren't going to do John any good where he is now, anyway. And I didn't go to lunch because I wasn't hungry."
"But you could get him--you--into major trouble if McAllister finds out you're playing hookey," Al pointed out. "I know exactly what's eatin' you kid, but you have John's welfare to worry about too, you know."
"Sure. A fat lot of good I've done so far. John still remains institutionalized, and Trudy..."
"Sam," Al said softly. "You can't change what isn't meant to be changed."
Beckett paled at the memories evoked by those words, blinked away moisture and looked up at Calavicci.
"Why, Al? Ziggy hasn't even figured out why I'm really here, yet. Why couldn't it be to help Trudy?"
"Because you leaped into John, a nine year old boy with cerebral palsy, Sam," Calavicci retorted in a voice strung taut with repressed emotion. It cracked. "If God meant for you to help Trudy he'd have leaped you into one of the stupid doctors."
Beckett closed his eyes against the truth. "I'm sorry, Al."
"Don't be," he said harshly. "This situation was caused by people and circumstances long before you were born. Trudy and me were never meant to get a break, and we never did."
"Magic--?" Sam remembered.
"I still ended up back in the orphanage," Al reminded him flatly.
The handlink chirruped. "Uh-oh," Al muttered. "Nurse Ratched is coming. Better have a good explanation, Sam."
But Beckett had no argument to fight the ire and the innate cruelty of Veronica McAllister. He found himself confined once again, his arm smarting from the vice-like grip the supervising nurse had on it as she hauled him along the corridor. It had been all he could do to prevent himself from forcibly dislodging her. All that would have gotten John was a straight-jacket, or worse...
Al had followed part-way before realizing where they were headed and popping into the room ahead of Sam.
Beckett rubbed his arm and looked up at his friend. "Now what?" he asked.
"Now you're stuck in here for the night again." Al consulted the handlink for further information. "Oh, no, Sam. You've changed history. We forgot about the fire. Now John is going to be locked in this room when it starts."
"Al--" Sam walked in a harried circle, came to a halt, walked back to his friend again. "What about the others--? Have I changed anything else?"
Al shook his head. "Sean still dies, and so does that nurse."
"Cheryl Tanner. It took Ziggy some time to find the coroner's report."
Sam closed his eyes. "No," he moaned. "Not her. I have to get out of here."
"I'll say you do. If you don't, Ziggy says the odds are 95% that John dies in the fire too."
Beckett's eyes flew open again. "How do I get out, Al?"
Calavicci consulted the handlink worriedly. "There are bars on the windows, supposedly to protect the patients, and the door is locked from the outside. Short of busting the door down, Ziggy doesn't have any suggestions."
"How long do I have?"
"Less than three hours."
"Less than--! How could you forget about the fire?!" Sam demanded, the answer coming to him even before he'd finished forming the word 'fire.'"
Al watched him knowingly.
"I'm sorry, Al," he said painfully. "There was no way for you to know that I was going to get myself locked in here again. I should have remembered."
"It's okay, Sam. You were right. There are lives at stake. I shouldn't have allowed myself to be sidetracked."
Beckett thought of something. "Al, go be with Trudy and Sean. They need you more than I do right now. If I can't get out of here you can at least help them to get out of the building. There's no point in sending them down here to help me because there's no key in the door."
Al looked at him warily.
Beckett smiled at his friend. "I'll be okay. There's nothing you can do here, except maybe check-in for a couple of seconds every hour in case anything changes. Go be with your sister."
Calavicci's eyes grew very bright. He nodded. "And Sam," he added softly. "Thanks."
Beckett swallowed. "Just take care of her," he replied tremulously. "And let me work on getting out of here."
Sam delayed the attempt at applying brute force to the oak door, knowing that unwanted attention would be drawn to his escape attempt. Instead he tried every bit of wire, from coat hangers to safety pins, to a paperclip from John's diary, to pick the lock without success.
"It always works in the movies," he muttered to himself as the coathanger wire bent the wrong way yet again, then jumped when Al popped back in.
"It's been an hour already?"
Al nodded. "How's it coming, Sam?"
"It's not. I'm no good at this, Al. Nobody ever called me Sam-the-Pick."
"Well, it's no wonder if that stuff is all you've got to work with. That only works in the movies."
"This is all I could find," Sam told him, crestfallen.
"What about a credit card?"
"Al, this is a children's home. I'm a kid. It's 1953..."
"Okay, what about something, anything that'll do the same job?" Al persisted. "It's a simple door lock. You find some rigid card or flat plastic and force it between the bolt and the door jamb."
Sam tore the room apart. The best he could do was the cover of a children's book. It tore when he tried to force it into the crack between the door and the jamb. He threw it across the room in temper.
"Okay, so maybe that wasn't such a good idea," Al placated. "Maybe it's time to try a little muscle?"
"That's solid oak, Al. Anything I could possibly do to it is going to attract attention," Sam reminded him. "I'll try it as a last resort, and not before. You go back with the kids and I'll try and find something else that'll fit in there."
Al nodded reluctantly and popped out.
The second hour passed much the same as the first had. Sam tried every available piece of metal and wire to pick the lock and everything that looked even remotely like it might stand up to the rigors of forcing a lock bolt open.
Al returned. "You're running out of time, Sam," he said darkly as Beckett wrecked yet another book cover.
"I know that, Al. But if I call attention to myself and get caught nobody's going to believe me about the fire. Even if they did who do you think would become the prime suspect?"
"I don't like this, Sam. You have to get out of here."
"I know that too," Beckett replied testily and smacked the door with his open hand.
"What about the window?"
"I can open the sash and I can reach the grating but without a screw-driver or a wrench or something I can't do much else."
"You could kick it real hard. Several times," Al suggested.
Beckett failed to repress a smile. "Well, there is always that," he agreed. "But it will be noisy. How long do I have?"
"Thirty eight minutes to the estimated time the fire was lit, fifty-one minutes to the time Ziggy says you'll be overcome by smoke inhalation if you don't get out of here, and fifty-five to sixty minutes to the estimated time Sean and the nurse were believed to have died."
"Thirty-eight minutes?" Sam groaned. "I'll have to risk trying the window."
Fifteen minutes and dozens of powerful, directed kicks later the screws holding the grate to the outside wall were beginning to rattle. Beckett was also getting tired. His foot throbbed in it's boot.
"Just a few more," Calavicci told him. "You're almost there."
Beckett turned. "Al, we're running out of time. You have to get back to the kids. Oh, and have Ziggy do thermal scans from now on until she pinpoints the start of that fire."
"Done," Al told him, hit the handlink and popped out.
After a short rest Sam started again, aiming his boot at the loosest point. It was difficult continually aiming his kick so high, but he had little choice. His muscles ached from his back to his ankle, but he pressed on.
Eventually the top of the grate parted from the wall. He grabbed hold of it and worked it back and forth trying to loosen the bottom fixtures. There was still not enough room to squeeze through. He backed away and balanced himself.
It took a dozen more kicks, this time with temper adding to the force of the blows, to finally rip another of the bolts from the wall. The grate swung noisily, pivotting on the remaining bolt and coming to rest hanging from it, against the wall.
Beckett knew that the dormitories were all but deserted during the day, and that the nursery was in another wing, but he was puzzled that the noise he'd made hadn't attracted someone's attention, even if it was going to be more muffled in a locked room than battering on the heavy wooden door. He moved to climb out, then thought of something.
It only took a moment to retrieve John's journal from its hiding place under the lining of the drawer. He was out of the window in seconds.
The grounds were deserted, play being over for the day.
Of course. It was meal time. The staff not rostered for the evening meal or the nursery normally went on their meal breaks while all the children were being fed. And most of them usually retreated to the staff quarters or left the grounds...
That meant that the fire started when most of the staff was out of the building. Even the office staff would be finished for the day...
He searched his photographic memory for an estimate of how many people did the feeds. He did the mental count three times. Three nurses and the rostered cook...and all those children to be moved outside...
Sam had reached the delivery entrance of the building when Al popped in next to him.
"Sam, you did it!"
"Al, you should be with--"
"Ziggy pinpointed the start of the fire, Sam. It wasn't lit deliberately, and you can't get to it in time to stop it. It's in the sub-standard electrical wiring in the ceiling. I just came to warn you. You have to come and help with the kids. The alarm is due to go off in about eight minutes and all hell is gonna break loose."
"But what about Sean and Cheryl Tanner?"
"I left them both in the dining room with Trudy and the other kids. Meet me there as soon as you can, Sam."
Beckett slipped inside, dodging around unopened boxes and crates and opened the access door to the hallway just a little. It was clear. The acrid smell of smoke warned him milliseconds before the alarm sounded that the fire was well alight.
He sprinted down the corridor to the food hall. Al was already marshalling Trudy and the little ones, who, when instructed, grabbed older ones, encouraging them to form lines. The nurses were frantically pulling trays off wheelchairs and lifting and strapping children who'd been out of their chairs back into them again and trying desperately to keep some kind of order.
The cook fled.
"Al," Sam called. "Take your group outside and stay with them."
Al nodded and led two straggly lines of nine or ten ambulatory children each out of the room as the smoke steadily grew thicker.
Sam shoved the book in his pants, picked up a small boy and a slightly older girl who were able to walk but whose progress was painfully slow and carried them swiftly out to join Al.
Moments later he was back inside again, passing two of the nurses each pushing two wheel chairs at a time and leading the few children in electric chairs down the corridor.
Where the hell were the other staff..?
He found a number of crying and coughing kids, and several immobile, severely handicapped children huddled or lying together, waiting with Cheryl Tanner for their turn to be rescued.
"Why hasn't anybody come to help?" Sam demanded.
Cheryl looked up at him. "John? How--?"
"Never mind that now. Where is everybody?"
"It's Tuesday night. We're it. Tuesday night is a rostered night off for the weekend staff," she told him as Sam swung a little boy with calipers onto his back and told him to hold on, and carefully lifted a severely handicapped girl into his arms, her grubby bib still on from her tube feed.
"I'll be back," he told the stunned Tanner and headed off into the smoke.
By the time he reached the outside the little boy on his back had all but succumbed to the smoke and the child in his arms was unconscious, but still breathing.
Al was sitting with the majority of the children, singing songs and occupying the small ones while chaos reigned around them. Flames were leaping from the ceiling of the building now, parts of the roof already burned through.
Sam wasted no time plunging back into the building, but found the going difficult, barely able to see or breathe in the smoke. He tripped over something in the corridor as he coughed his way along the wall.
It was one of the nurses and two more children. He managed to get the children out, drawing huge breaths of fresh air as he lay them on the lawn before plunging back in for the nurse, terrified that he was going to lose those left in the dining room.
By the time he'd made certain the trio were breathing, the offices were well alight. Getting in through the front door was almost impossible. As he hurtled through the foyer, he felt his skin and hair begin to singe from the heat of the flames. He knew then that if he made it to the dining room he'd have to get them out through the delivery entrance.
He found the second nurse and the second of the multi-handicapped childen unconscious on the floor not far from the little group.
"Cheryl!" he yelled.
"I'm here," she croaked, choking and gasping for breath. "I've got them all lying on the floor."
"Come over here and take this child out. You have to go out the delivery entrance. The fire is too hot the other way."
Tanner reached him and picked up the child. It was insane, taking orders from a nine year old child...
She looked into Beckett's eyes and stopped. Without knowing exactly why she silently took the unconscious child from him and disappeared into the smoke without further prevarication.
Sam pulled the unconscious nurse into a fireman's carry and followed her. Outside he left Cheryl to see to both.
There were just four children left inside, two unconscious, two conscious but terrified, crying and choking on the smoke. He lifted the first two but hesitated when the others clung to him in terror.
He couldn't leave them alone...
He was about to try and put another of the children on his back when Al appeared out of the smoke.
"They're with the nurses now," Calavicci told him.
Only one of the children appeared to be able to see him, watching mesmerically, despite streaming eyes and a struggle for air, as Al stood effortlessly in the smoke.
Sam didn't waste any time. "I think I can carry three, Al. Stay with Nicky and keep him down on the floor until I get back," he ordered between coughs.
The distance was shorter, but it was now just as difficult to make it to the other exit. Beckett couldn't breathe, could barely walk. The child on his back was almost unconscious. Sam could feel the small arms giving out.
He bent over as far as he could, shifting the children's weight under his arms, so that his stooped back partially supported the little body on it and staggered toward the store room.
He was almost to the outside door when everything went black.
The world came into focus very slowly. Well, sort of into focus. His face was covered by something.
Oxygen. Sam sat up swiftly, knocking the mask aside. Where...?
"Sam! That was way too close! God, Sam, I thought I'd lost you."
Beckett blinked. A very pale Al was hovering over him. Behind him paramedics were working on the children.
"You didn't make it. The firemen brought you and the last of the kids out. Only just in time, too. Nicky almost died of smoke inhalation."
"It's okay, Sam," Al soothed. "All the kids got out, thanks to you, and these guys," he motioned over his shoulders to the fire team still working on the blaze. "They found the last of them in the playroom and one of the classrooms and brought out the babies from the nursery. Thank God the fire didn't start down that end of the building."
"So everybody made it? Cheryl?" Sam demanded, then suddenly groped at his clothes. The journal was still there. He exhaled with relief.
"She's fine," Al told him. "There's one casualty. Ziggy says in the morning they'll find the body of Veronica McAllister in doorway of your room."
Sam made to leap up.
"No, Sam, it's too late. That area is toast already. Ziggy says the coroner placed her death about twenty-five minutes ago...from asphyxiation. She still had the key to the room in her hand when they found her..."
Sam looked away. "She died trying to save my life--John's life," he said quietly.
"But that autistic child who was going to die three years from now doesn't and his family's not split apart by the tragedy. In fact he is discovered to be an autistic-savant, which gets him into a progressive experimental program that helps him to become functional enough to go home and lead a pretty good life with them, and then a half-way house in the seventies," Calavicci added.
Beckett's head remained bowed.
"You can't save everyone, Sam," Al told him gently. "And she didn't die for nothing. She did save a child's life, even if she didn't know it."
Sam looked up slowly, reluctantly. "And Trudy?" he asked quietly.
"John?" A little voice replied, a very sooty face looking down at him and grinning.
Sam reached out and swept her off her small legs and took her in his arms.
"We made it," he told her, and grinned as she giggled. "And you helped Al get the others out."
"I'm a big girl," she told him proudly.
"You sure are," Sam told her and looked up at his best friend.
"Al, I haven't leaped," he said hopefully.
Al nodded. "Ziggy hasn't got a handle on it yet, but the best scenario she can come up with is that John still needs your help."
"But...Trudy?" he asked, tickling her under the arms and making her squeal with laughter.
Al shook his head.
Beckett froze, staring in disbelief at the handlink, as if he could will Ziggy to change her mind.
"No way," he whispered vehemently, his arms circling the child protectively as she snuggled into the crook of his arm.
Al watched them, two of the three most important people in his lifetime, together. And for the first time since that first leap, he truly felt as though he understood Sam Beckett's isolation.
Moisture rose in his dark eyes and trickled silently down his cheeks. He closed them.
"Yes..." he whispered sadly.
The following day was a chaotic one for all the children. Those who needed constant care had been taken to local hospitals until places in other homes could be found, while the rest of them were given temporary shelter in a school gymnasium with borrowed beds, borrowed medical equipment and donated food, toys and clothing.
Sam maintained a constant vigil over his two small friends in the melee, watching and wondering when he would leap, and what remained to be done for that to be accomplished.
He was watching Rosie trying to learn to play marbles and smiling at the earnestness of her efforts when it occurred to him that perhaps he was still there so that Al might have a little time with his sister after so many years apart...
His thoughts were interrupted by Cheryl Tanner calling his name. He turned to see her coming towards him, accompanied by
He rose to meet them.
"John, Doctor Llewellyn-Smith would like to talk to you, outside," Tanner told him, her tone gentle and reassuring.
Sam looked back at Trudy, an unreasoning hope welling up in him. He walked ahead as swiftly as the limp he'd inherited from John would allow and turned eagerly to the doctor when they emerged into the sunshine.
"You're going to operate--?"
The smile washed from Llewellyn-Jones' face. "I'm sorry, boy. That's not what I came here for. I thought we settled that last time we spoke."
Sam stared. The anticipatory light in his eyes died and he dropped his chin to his chest, his fists clenched.
"No," he said. "We didn't."
"Rosie has had a good life. She hasn't suffered and she isn't going to suffer," the older man explained. "Sometimes we just have to accept that nature has its own designs for all of us."
Sam lifted his head, anger at the too-easy rationalization now flashing in John's dark eyes.
"Who says God ever meant for us to stop trying?" he retorted. "Rosie deserves the same chance as the rest of us--"
"Right now, that's pretty much what she's got, Sam," a voice said behind him.
Sam turned, his expression puzzled.
"That's right," Al went on flatly. "I asked Ziggy to check into the medical stuff you've been talking about. That surgery happened, yes, but hundreds of heart patients without access to the big hospitals, big money and resources, were still dying years after that first break-through, even though a lot of them could have been saved..."
Al shook his head and pointed to the doctor, reminding Sam that they were not alone.
Sam turned back to the doctor. "Why are you here?" he demanded, forgetting for a moment who he was.
"I came to see you, John. I have to tell you that your day-dreams about open-heart surgery have fascinated several of my friends. The things you came up with have started them thinking. And that's always a good thing."
It was not, however, any comfort to Sam. "Okay," he said flatly. "Are we done?"
Llewellyn-Jones smiled a little. "Not by a long shot. The reason I'm here has to do with what you said about your future, about what you wanted do with your life, given the opportunity."
Sam tilted his head in surprise and looked at the other man quizzically. Al stepped up to stand defensively at his friend's shoulder.
"I went and saw your parents, son. They had no idea what a bright boy they had."
Beckett's shoulders dropped a little, then his eyes narrowed. "So if I wasn't so smart they still wouldn't want to bother with me?"
Al thought he detected a very real look of respect in the older man's eyes.
"I don't think its quite that simple, John. I think they realize now that they can relate to you in a way they never could before."
"You mean they didn't know what to do with someone as different as I was? When was the last time they came to see me?"
"Nineteen forty-nine," Al said quietly.
"Four years ago," Sam said, emotion in his voice. "Four years to decide whether I was worth the bother?"
There was understanding in Llewellyn's eyes. "Sometimes, John, we have to take what we can get. You have to give them a chance. Whatever else happens, you'll get that education you want so badly. After that, the sky's the limit."
Sam swallowed. He was right. It sucked, but he was right.
"You did it, Sam. John goes home to his parents. The doc there did go to see them, but it was the scare the Bradleys had after the fire that really shook them up. He grows up to be a top-of-the-line research scientist."
"But the writing--?"
"Oh, he publishes lots of papers," Al reassured him drily.
Beckett turned back to Llewellyn-Jones. "Would you do something for me?" he asked.
The doctor nodded.
"I just have to get something," Sam told him and ran back into the building.
He retrieved the journal from under his small, neat pile of donated clothes, and turned to see Al sitting with Trudy and Sean. Trudy was taking a turn for Al in a game of marbles.
He went to the group and hunkered down next to his friend. "You okay, Al?" he asked softly.
Al looked at Trudy's bright face, pale now that it was clean and washed, except for two excited splashes of red in her cheeks, then up at Sam.
"I will be."
Sam nodded and withdrew.
Outside the doctor was talking to a small, dark-haired, petite woman somewhere about thirty-five to forty, wearing expensive clothes and a small hat.
They both turned as he approached. As he drew closer he realized that the woman bore a strong resemblance to John, and perhaps to one of the blurred faces in the photograph.
"I want you to have this," he told the doctor, acutely aware that the woman was watching him intently, and that she was wound up tighter than a watchspring. "It's a journal of my life in that place. Please, let people know what it's like. There's so much that needs to be changed--and look after--" he added, looking back at the building. "--her."
Llewellyn-Jones flipped through the book, stopped suddenly on one of the last pages, read the neat new, concise script, the request in it and slowly looked up at the boy. There was a promise in his eyes as he nodded at Sam.
Beckett's eyes glowed as he exhaled with relief, a small flicker of hope igniting again in his soul.
Llewellyn-Jones glanced at the woman. "John, are you going to say hello to--"
"Hello, mom," Sam interrupted, hoping that it might break the ice if he appeared to be responsive.
"Hello, John. Doctor Llewellyn-Jones has been telling us all about you. He thinks you should go to school, maybe even to college. Is that what you'd like?"
Sam faced her squarely, thinking of the little boy in the waiting room, and the hopes and aspirations he'd seen in the pages of that journal.
"More than anything in the world," he told her. "And I can do it too. I won't let you down."
The woman's eyes grew moist. The child was staring at her so earnestly. She remembered the last time she'd seen him, how different he looked: a chubby little cherub who could barely stagger along, with an even more pronounced slur to his speech and a love of drawing and scribbling with pencils and crayons.
She remembered how much she wanted him to run to her, to talk and perform like all her friend's children, how much she wished she could take him home, cured, whole...
Then Christopher had come along, so perfect, so beautiful...
And John had seemed so far away. It had always been: next month, next week, tomorrow...always, later. And now here they were, four years later. And here he was, a small replica of her...
She was unable to move, held fast by her own guilt, by the seperation of time.
Sam searched her tense, drawn face. "Mom? Are you okay?"
Her lips trembled. "How...how did you remember me after all this time?"
Sam swallowed. The poignancy...and tragedy of that question threw him off-guard.
"I...I look like you," he stammered.
Tears overflowed and trickled down the woman's cheeks. "John, I'm sorry. So very sorry--"
Sam swallowed again. There was a question that needed to be answered, and Al wasn't there to answer it.
"What--what about dad?" he asked.
Mrs Bradley paled a little more, if that were possible. "He--he gave permission for me arrange for you to come home," she said carefully. "He's paid for a lovely bedroom for you. He works very hard, John," she finished feebly.
"I get the picture," Sam muttered under his breath. He wished more than anything that he could be certain that the boy would be loved, would be happy.
The doctor's hand rested on his shoulder and squeezed slightly. He looked at the elder man, saw the empathy in his eyes and turned slowly back to the woman who was John's mother.
"Okay," he said, praying he wouldn't leap right away. "But there's something else I have to do first."
The kids were still engrossed in their game, Al making up verbally for his lack of a physical presence.
Sam bent to Calavicci's ear. "Al," he said softly. "It's time."
A chuckling Al drew the handlink from his pocket and tapped it a few times.
The joy washed from his face. "Ziggy says you're right," he said flatly. A moment later the handlink sqawked again.
Al stared at it for a moment. "Sam, you changed something. Ziggy says Trudy doesn't get sent to Syracuse now. She doesn't know where she is being sent yet, but you definitely changed something..."
Sam smiled. "I hope it works out," he said quietly.
"Me too," Al said distractedly, then turned reluctantly to Trudy.
"I have to go, honey," he told her gently.
Sam closed his eyes.
"Like Albert," she said vaguely.
"Yeah, like Albert," he managed, barely.
"Will you come back?"
Calavicci shook his head slowly, gathering himself. "I just came to visit, sweetheart. I have to go now."
Trudy blinked, her bright eyes seemingly searching his face for an understanding of what was going on.
Al just looked at her for a long moment. Then he said something to her in Italian, in the most tender voice Sam had ever heard him use, and turned to go before she could see the tears in his eyes.
Trudy blinked again and beamed, as if remembering something wonderful from a long time ago.
"Te amo, Albert," she replied, and raced away to join Sean's game before he could react.
Calavicci hit the handlink with a trembling hand. The chamber door opened.
"Are you going to be all right?" Beckett asked helplessly.
Al looked over his shoulder at the children, then back at Sam.
He blinked away moisture. "Better than all right," he said firmly. And at Sam's puzzled, worried look: "I found her, Sam. I know where she was, who she was with. I..." his voice failed.
Sam instinctively moved to put his hands on the older man's shoulders, then swore with uncharacteristic vehemence as cold, hard reality asserted itself once again.
Al managed a smile then. "I know, Sam," he said softly, tremulously. "I know."
Al Calavicci emerged from the imaging chamber dashing at his eyes, and walked down slowly down the ramp. He felt more lonely than he had in many, many years. It had been a long time, too, since walking out of there without Sam had hurt this much...
He passed Gooshie without a word and continued out into the corridor.
His office was silent and deserted. He hated it. There were too many memories in it for him to spend more than the minimum neccessary time there on any given day.
This time, however, he was there with a purpose. He wasn't sure what, only that he needed to be there, needed to sit at his desk, to open the drawer.
He took out an incredibly old woollen sock and shook it gently onto his blotter. With each marble that rolled out, came a memory. Of a little sister, of seperation, of loneliness, of searching, of heartbreak...
He trembled and clenched a fist. A moment later he suddenly relaxed and picked up a marble, staring at it in wonderment.
...And a precious gift of time...
Al shook his head, his eyes glowing. And looked across to the corner of his desk at the old black-and-white Christmas portrait. It was still in the same mahogany frame it had been in since he'd had it taken forty-six years earlier.
He picked it up with trembling hands. "Oh...Sam," he said softly. "...If only I could tell you."
Then he looked down at the picture, at his skinny, nineteen year-old self, and the bright, happy eyes in the small face of his companion.