The Innocent Age



by Neetz



Fretful horizons, worrisome skies,
Tearful misgivings burning your eyes,
Yearnings unanswered reckon the wage
You pay to recapture the innocent age.



The luminous face of the Big Ben told him it was nearing midnight. The old wind-up clock had sat on the bedside table for as long as he could remember. His mother had often commented that she didn't understand how anyone could sleep through its noise, but to Sam the steady tick, tick, tick had been like a lullaby. It had reminded him he was safe; it was a constant reassurance that he was in the midst of those who loved him. He was home. The clock had been left behind when he went away to college and he found he had trouble falling asleep without the sound.

Now, he listened to that familiar rhythm once more, as he lay in his old bed, a solid four-poster with an ornately scrolled headboard that had belonged to his Grandpa Samuel, after whom he had been named. The quilt that covered him had been lovingly sewn by Grandma Netty. All around him were the things of his childhood and adolescence, thing from a time before his life's goals had been set, before he had become so driven to reach those goals, before the responsibilities heaped upon him and the innocence of youth was lost.

He pushed himself up in the bed to lean against the headboard, the clock once again drawing his attention. No more was it a source of reassurance, it had become a symbolic reminder of the dominant theme and influence on his life: Time.

He reached out and took the clock in his hands, staring at the dial. Time had been his obsession. He had spent years studying it, mastering the concepts and nature of it and he had spent most of his career trying to conquer its limitations. In the end, Time had asserted its superiority, trapping him within its eddies and currents, sending him from one point in its stream to another, one life to another, his quixotic tasks to perform. Whether it was time itself that guided his movements or a higher authority setting him to the ultimate struggle against his old adversary, he did not know. The result was the same in either case: he had no life of his own. But even realizing that, he had persevered, finding solace if not contentment in the knowledge that he was changing people's lives for the better.

Suddenly, he was thrust into a situation where that wasn't enough. He understood how important it was to the lives of his coach and his two teammates that he somehow manage to win the basketball game that was now only a few hours away. The results of that game would redirect their lives.

But what was it to him? How much did he care about how improved his friends' lives would be if he couldn't do anything to improve his own sister's life, and most compellingly, to save the lives of his father and his brother? Wasn't he due something in return for all the time-altering work he had done? How could Time or God or whoever controlled his life send him here and not allow him to prevent the tragedy that would soon fall upon his family? Was it so selfish? How could he not try? After all, Sam Beckett was only human. And how could a merciful God bring him here to this moment only to have him fail?

Sam set the clock down on the bed, covering it with the quilt as he threw it back and jumped out of bed. He walked quickly to his bedroom window and looked out upon the view it afforded of the barn and the cornfield. The field seemed to beckon to him. Hurriedly, he pulled on his robe and slipped into his shoes, suddenly feeling desperate for the crisp November air and the smell of the corn. He had to be careful not to make noise, however. The last thing he wanted right now was to awaken anyone else in the house.

Silently he slipped out of his room and started down the hall. Within only a couple of steps, he found himself at his sister's room. No one in the Beckett family slept with their doors closed, and he could see Katy's shape under her pink blanket. He smiled to himself. She had already started complaining about the little-girl pink decor in her room. She wasn't a child anymore, she insisted. Next year she would be a teenager. In only a few years, she would start dating. Too soon she would meet Chuck and before she had had the chance to experience freedom, would find herself condemned to a hell on earth. She didn't deserve that, did she? Why couldn't he change it? Closing his eyes, he stepped away from the door, only to find himself drawn to the next: his parents' bedroom.

He had heard his father's snoring from the moment he had stepped into the hall. Now, in front of the door, it was even louder and Sam had to wonder at his mother who had complained about the noisy old clock and yet for over twenty years had managed to sleep through that racket. John Beckett was, of course, lying on his back, his arm around his wife who lay curled against his side, her head pillowed on his shoulder. One arm lay buried beneath her and the one that remained visible rested across her husband's chest. His free hand, in turn, rested atop hers. The look of contentment on his mother's face was the same expression Sam always recalled gracing her features when his photographic memory called her image forth. It had been there so often when he was growing up; it had rarely been seen after first her son Tom, then her beloved John, had died. This was it, Sam realized. This was the last time they had all been together. Things would never be the same again.

The chimes from the clock in the den echoed softly down the hall. Midnight. It was Friday. Today would mark the last time he would see his father. Tears filled his eyes and he struggled to hold them back as he turned away.

There was only one more room off the hall, the second largest bedroom in the house, the one Katy wanted, the one he had wanted when he had really been sixteen and had no knowledge of what was to come. As he looked in he could see the shadowy form of his sleeping brother. Silently he begged Tom to remember his promise. Sam couldn't make him understand how desperately important it was. It was his only hope to change something, to set something right for his family.

The tears in his eyes could no longer be stayed and he could feel the lump forming in his throat. Quickly he turned away and headed for the kitchen door. Closing the door as silently as he could, he turned and immediately gasped in a deep, cold breath of late fall air. Stepping off the porch, he began to run for the cornfield for the second time in as many days. Startled pheasants flushed from his path and fearing the noise might awaken his family, he forced himself to stop. He stood for a moment, the waving stalks batting against his face, then sank to the ground and cradled it in his hands just as the sobs overcame his control.

***

There had been a time when Al would have scoffed at the idea of a sixth sense. That had been before Project Quantum Leap and he had found himself existing quite a lot of the time as a ghostly apparition visible only to Sam Beckett. It had taken some getting used to, and even now there were times when it was just downright weird, but there was never any question in Al's mind of whether or not to continue. Sam had no choice in the matter. He was stuck leaping around from one time to another, and until Sam made it back to the present, Al would be there. It didn't matter that he was the only one who could contact Sam, the Nobel-Prize winning genius of a physicist was the career Naval officer's best friend and the thought of abandoning him had never even occurred. To say he felt a closeness to the younger man would be the understatement of the eon, and their friendship had only grown stronger, if that were possible, since Sam first stepped into the accelerator and leaped out of existence from the world in which he belonged. Al knew Sam better than Sam did himself, and somehow it was no longer such a stretch of the imagination to believe he could sense the mood of the young scientist. It was the middle of the night, but Al knew Sam wouldn't be asleep, and he wasn't surprised at all when he asked Gooshy to center him on Sam and found himself standing a few yards behind his friend in the cornfield.

He could see Sam's shoulders shaking and hear the soft sounds muffled by the barrier of his hands. Al's heart hurt for his young friend and the sense of helplessness was overpowering. I know how you feel, kid, he thought, believe me, I do. Losing Beth had nearly killed him when it had actually happened, and he still didn't know if seeing her again had been a blessing or a curse. Perhaps a little of both. He felt he had been a little rough on Sam that afternoon, but he knew he had to shock him out of his depression. All Sam was seeing was the curse, and if he were to survive this, he had to be made to see the blessing.

Sam sniffed loudly, drawing Al out of his reverie. He saw his friend rub at his eyes with the heels of his hands and take a shaky breath. Without conscious volition, Al moved forward, his hand extended toward the younger man's shoulder. It wasn't until the hand hovered just a few inches above its target that Al suddenly realized he couldn't touch Sam; he was a hologram. Damn! his mind cursed, then, dropping his arm to his side, he took a deep breath and spoke his friend's name very softly.

Sam's back straightened in momentary startlement as he turned his head just enough to see Al out of the corner of his eyes, then he turned back to stare straight ahead into the dark forest of corn.

"I'm sorry, kid," Al said.

"So am I," Sam replied. He hung his head for a moment, then lifted it again. "I'm sorry I didn't understand about Beth. Maybe I could have tried harder, maybe we could have changed what happened."

Al smiled sadly, "No," he closed his eyes for a moment. "You were right. If you hadn't seen the truth in that, the people you were really there to save would have died. It just wasn't meant to be. It hurts, but I think I can accept it now better than I could before."

"When I think about how selfish I was that first night in the barn, the things I said..."

"Sam you don't have to..."

"No, Al, I do have to. You were right. The only difference in this situation and the one with you and Beth is that this time it's happening to me. And maybe I can't change anything any more than you could have. Now I understand."

"I wish you hadn't had to understand, Sam. I really do. But you've got to see what a wonderful thing you've been given here. Maybe you can't change what's going to happen, but you have a chance to be with your family again. You said earlier that today was the best."

Sam smiled. "It was. You know, Al, for a little while, I almost forgot what was going to happen and just let myself drink it all in. Home, Mom and Dad, Katy,... Tom. The whole family was together again and I don't think I ever realized before how lucky I was. For the first seventeen years of my life, I had the best family that ever was. We all respected each other, looked out for each other, loved each other. You were right. What wouldn't anyone give for a chance to go back to a time when everything was good and right and he was surrounded by the people he loved and who loved him?"

"That's the blessing, Sam," Al said, as he crouched down beside his friend. "And only you can decide if the value of that blessing outweighs the price you're having to pay for it. But ask yourself this, would you have rather never seen them again? If the bargain had been laid out in advance, if He," Al pointed his ever present cigar heavenward, "had given you the chance of coming back here knowing you couldn't change anything, would you have come?"

Sam thought for a minute, then he smiled at his friend. "I would have jumped at the chance, but I still wouldn't have understood until after I got here, and I probably would still have tried to change things."

"Yeah," Al replied. "I know."

"Who wouldn't want to go back to the age of innocence, when things were so clear and pure, before reality comes crashing down on you?" Sam asked.

"Fairy tale endings rarely ever happen in life," Al replied, sagely.

"I know that, Al," Sam replied. "But if I could just make one thing right..."

"Tom," Al knew.

Sam took a deep breath. "I want to help my sister. I love her and I don't want her life ruined. And I want to save my dad's life. I want him to be there when I graduate from college, I want him to be in the audience at Carnegie Hall when I'm nineteen and I want him to live to know his son won the Nobel Prize. But what my sister did... will do... is her choice and a part of me can see that. The experience will become a part of her, and after all the pain, she will find happiness. And I know Dad has lived a full life, lived it the way he wanted to live it, and he'd be the first to tell me he has no regrets. It hurts like hell, but some part of me can accept his death." He paused for a moment. "But Tom. Tom has his whole life in front of him. All his choices, all the things he wants out of life are before him. And... and I just can't accept that he's going to die again." Tears seeped once more from the corners of his eyes. "I have to try to stop it. Do you understand that, Al?"

"Yeah, kid, I understand it and I know how helpless you feel, and I know if I was in your shoes, I'd try even if I knew I couldn't change it." He laughed. "In fact, that's just what I did."

Sam was silent for a moment. "You don't think I'm going to be able to save him, do you?"

Al shook his head. "I don't know, Sam. I hope so, for your sake as much as for Tom's. But I just... don't know. I do know I can't fault you for trying and I don't see how He could either." He nodded upwards again.

"Thanks, Al," Sam whispered, giving his friend a sidelong look. "You're the best friend a guy could have."

Al smiled. "No problem, you'd do the same for me. In fact, you have." Sam smiled back at him and once again Al wished he could put his hand on Sam's should and give him a reassuring shake. "Don't you think you ought to be getting a little sleep?" he asked. "You've got one very important basketball game to play tomorrow and you want to be ready for that No-Nose creep."

"I guess you're right," Sam replied as he climbed to his feet and turned toward the house. Al watched him take a couple of steps, then turn back toward his holographic friend. "You know, I wouldn't trade being able to spend Thanksgiving with my family for anything. Despite it all, it was really good to be here again. I think Thomas Wolfe was wrong. I think you can go home again. Maybe it's not all the same, because I'm not the same as I was when I was sixteen. The innocence may have been lost, but its still home, Al."

"Yeah," Al replied, nodding in response to the watery smile from Sam. He stood and watched as Sam headed back for the house. He stayed, in fact, until long after Sam had disappeared through the kitchen door. Finally, he walked slowly toward the house himself, right through the walls (being a hologram did have some advantages) and into Sam's bedroom. He looked down on the sleeping figure of his friend, took a long pull on his cigar, and settled in to watch over him until the first rays of sunlight broke through the bedroom window. After all, he had nothing better to do. And besides, standing beside the best friend he had ever had or was ever likely to have in the world made him feel like maybe he was home, too.



Capture the moment, carry the day,
Stay with the chase as long as you may.
Follow the dreamer, the fool and the sage
Back to the days of the innocent age.
*



*The Innocent Age, Dan Fogelberg