Take Me Home
by Noel Goddard
Original Pub. Date: March 2003
Summary: Sam searches for his Al in a post-Mirror Image universe.
I took a deep breath and a long drink from the beer I found sitting in front of me. The amber liquid burned as it went down my throat. My throat. Ever since that fateful leap into that strange bar, I had been leaping as myself; I'd been leaping alone. No Ziggy, no Al. Just me and God/Time/Fate/Whatever. The leaps had been getting harder and harder. I was the first to admit that I was tired, but I knew that what I was doing was important. But a small - okay not so small - part of me was still selfish enough to miss Al. It had been exactly 23 leaps since I last saw Al. Yep, I was counting. Every few leaps, I went back to that bar and each time the bartender asked the same question of me - was I ready to go home yet? Each time I said no. I knew that thanks to me, Al wasn't there waiting for me. So why go home?
Which brings us to this particular, very real, bar in Las Vegas. I had leaped into Vegas about 48 hours ago. I had landed in this exact bar sitting three stools away from Al. I very nearly fell off my stool when I first saw him. I knew immediately that this leap was for me…for us. There was no great master plan at work. This was purely my selfishness … again.
The first night, I just watched Al. Watched how he drank, danced with all the women in the bar yet left with none. He was everything I remembered and yet his eyes hid something from those around him. He was not as happy-go-lucky as he seemed.
After he left the bar that night, I followed him back to his hotel on the strip. Once he settled into his room for the night, I went to the desk and booked myself a room in the same hotel. I spent the next 2 days following Al around town. Never falling too far behind, yet never making contact. Always staying out of his line of vision. From what I had been able to learn, he was a regular here in Las Vegas. Every few months, he would blow into town, drink a lot, hit the casinos, and lose big. Then he would go back to his normal routine existence with Beth and his daughters. Everyone in town recognized the former astronaut and proclaimed him to be the life of the party when he was in town. Yet, no one really seemed to know anything about his life outside of his Vegas excursions. A few seemed to know of Beth and the girls, but nothing else.
So, now, I sat in the same bar for the third night in a row, watching Al from across the room as he drank his scotch. Tonight seemed different somehow. He seemed more reserved - no dancing. He just sat at the bar drinking alone. He still acknowledged those who approached him, but his body language was clear. Stay away.
I took another drink of my beer and while the amber liquid briefly warmed me, the sight of Al tonight chilled me to the bone. What had I done to bring him to this? I gave him what he had begged me for - Beth. And yet, tonight, he looked like I felt - alone and lost. What was he missing? He had a wife and four beautiful daughters. In this timeline, there were no AA meetings to attend, no ex-wives to support, and no self-absorbed geniuses to protect. Al was a four star admiral, and even though he was officially retired, he still served as a military advisor to several key members of Congress. He lectured at Annapolis every year and was a large, although anonymous, benefactor to Catholic Charities orphanages. I knew these things because I checked. In each of the last 22 leaps, I spent all of my free time looking for news of Al. The only reason I could bear my life without him was because I knew his was better. Now, I didn't know.
I looked across the bar and saw that Al was standing. It was late and most of the other patrons had left long ago. As he moved toward the door, he looked at no one and yet seemed to look at everyone, as if searching for a familiar face. I knew that he wouldn't recognize me. In this timeline, we met once at a congressional fundraiser for Project Quantum Leap. That was all. No nights gorging ourselves on junk food, no nights singing musicals at the tops of our lungs, no nights …together. And yet, I was drawn from my seat by an irresistible, but unexplainable force.
I didn't plan to speak to him. Just pass nearby. Just be near the one who was once my only connection with my world, the one who was my world. I was so deep in my own thoughts that I didn't notice that Al had stopped his drift toward the door. I walked right into him, causing his drink to spill to the floor. I watched transfixed as the glass fell to the hard marble floor. The shatter of the glass filled the nearly empty space. In the moment afterwards, I froze as Al's eyes came up to mine. I heard, or imagined I heard, Al's sharp intake of breath. Managing to find my voice, I muttered a simple apology, "Sorry."
I turned to move away; it was too painful to be so close and yet so far from Al. From behind, I heard a familiar gravelly voice, "Sam?"
My world stopped. I knew my heart was still beating and yet my legs wouldn't move to leave. My mouth wouldn't open to answer. It was too much. This Al couldn't possibly know me. He must be confused. Because if this Al knew me, then…
Again, the voice sounded from behind me, its tone begging for an answer, "Sam, is that you?"
The pain inside was too much. My selfishness had done this. My incredible selfish need to leap. My selfish need to continue leaping instead of returning home. My incredibly selfish need to believe that I had enough control over the universe to erase myself from his life. My belief that I knew what was best for him. All so wrong. Dear God, what had I done? I did the only thing I could. I walked away.
I walked out the door and without even thinking, I headed down the street toward who knows what. The cool night air and harsh lights from the strip around me seemed to heighten my already on-fire senses. I never expected him to follow me. I guess I thought he'd chalk it up to a drunken hallucination, a dream, a wishful thought. Guess after all those years I should have known to expect more from Al.
I felt him before I heard him. A hand on my arm. Pulling me around to face what I had wrought. Al's familiar, angry yet beautiful face stared back at me, "Sam."
No escape this time. Al's grip on my arm was tight. There were no answers. None that would satisfy him. I spoke, my voice strained, "Al."
We stared at each other wordlessly under the harsh lights lining the streets. With a slight nod of his head, he moved past me and headed toward his hotel… our hotel. He knew I would follow, just as I knew that he wanted me to follow him. No words were spoken. We walked in silence all the way back to the hotel. No glances were exchanged. We walked into the lobby and stood side by side at the elevator. As we stood in the elevator, I watched as the doors opened to his floor. This time I got off the elevator instead of just gazing down the hall. I knew which room was his, and I followed him down the hall to the door.
We entered his room. Some things never changed. The room looked as if it were uninhabited. Just one small suitcase in the corner past the bed. Al always traveled light.
Al gestured toward one of the chairs by the table. I sat. Clearing his throat, he offered, "Drink?"
I nodded, "Light beer, if you have it."
He opened the mini-fridge and took out two cans of nondescript light beer, one for each of us. He sat across the table from me in the other chair. We sipped our beers in silence, each waiting for the other to say something, to say anything.
Finally, Al broke the silence, "I remember, Sam."
The three words I most dreaded. The three words I never, ever considered in my ill-conceived tinkering with the past. He remembered it. All the timelines. He remembered Vietnam. He remembered Beth leaving him. He remembered all his ex-wives. He remembered his career going down the drain. He remembered me…and dear God, he remembered us. I saw it all in his eyes. All the pain, all the heartbreak.
I had to know; I asked, "How?"
It seemed as if the wall broke. Al spoke harshly, "You were in that place, that bar. I left to go make Ziggy get you the hell out of there. Instead of coming out into the Imaging Chamber, I walked out into a living room. A room I didn't know, filled with pictures that I didn't recognize. Gradually, the timeline filled in, just like it did on the 95 leaps before that one. Only this time, you weren't there. There was no Gooshie, no Ziggy, no Tina, no Beeks. Nothing. Just a woman I knew thirty years ago and four daughters I never met."
What could I say? All the words weren't enough, and yet, I spoke, "I'm sorry Al."
Wrong thing. Al's temper flared, "You didn't think I'd remember, did you? You thought you'd get rid of me. Just lose yourself in time like that damn bartender!"
There wasn't an answer. Time was an addiction. Twenty-three leaps ago I couldn't stop. I couldn't stop the leaps, and yet I knew Al couldn't go on. My selfishness again. Now I looked at the face of the man I loved more than life. I saw the pain - all my fault. I was no better than his mother, his father, his sister, his wives. I had abandoned him like all the rest. There was no answer. "I was wrong, Al. I thought…" My voice died in my throat.
The wall fell back in place across Al's face. Quiet but cold, "You thought wrong."
Our beers were done. I knew that I wasn't welcome anymore. Al didn't want answers. Didn't want to know about my leaps. Didn't want to hear how I had searched him out across time just to see him again. Didn't want to hear how much I longed to touch him, to be with him again. He was done.
I stood from the table and walked toward the door of the room. I turned before leaving, needing to say it one last time, "I love you, Al."
He looked up and met my eyes. I saw the tears in his, "I know, kid."
I left, and as I walked down the hall, I felt the leap take me.
Another twenty-three leaps later, I landed in Al's Place. I had not found Al again. I looked for him in each leap and had followed his life through both the present and past. But I never saw him again. Never touched him again.
Now I was back at the bar where everything had gone so horribly wrong in the first place. The bartender nodded to me and approached with my light beer of choice. After all, I was a regular around here now.
He smiled as he leaned on the bar, "How are you doing, Sam? That last one was hard."
I nodded, shaking off the memory of my last leap. I waited for the question. The question he asked each time I came back to the bar.
He stared at me and then started, "Sam, you've done so much. Are you ready to go home?"
Tears welled up in my eyes this time. This time the question itself was too much. Usually, I answered with just a shake of my head. This time, I couldn't help but lash out, "Home? I don't have a home. My home was with Al and that's gone now."
A sigh, and a hand covered mine, "Don't you know that's all you need to ask for? Al is moving through time waiting for you. He wants to go home as much as you do."
I knew that wasn't true, couldn't be true. Choking on tears, I spoke, "You don't understand. I found him once. He remembered everything. I can't be with him."
Calmly, the bartender tried to correct my mistake, "He knew you weren't ready yet. He knew you were just there to check on him. Sam, he wants you to come home."
Refusing to believe, I spoke "Home to where? The project doesn't even exist in this timeline. Al is married with kids. Where would I go?"
The pieces fell into place as he spoke wisely, "Sam, your home is with Al. It doesn't matter where or when." The bartender pointed upward as he said, "Trust Him to take you home to Al. It's time, Sam."
The tears fell freely down my face as I felt the leap pull me into the time stream. I knew the bartender was right. I could feel Al, my Al, reaching out to me across time. I'm coming, Al. Coming home to you.