Dad had sent a massive battered old Underwood typewriter with him, and his fingers got sore from pounding the keys down. Sometimes too many keys rose at once and jammed together, so his fingers were all inky from pulling them apart. Still, the letter looked better than it would've in his own handwriting. Even he sometimes had trouble reading that!
In the letter, he told them about eating in the cafeteria, for Mom; about the gym, for Tom; and about all the stuff he was learning in his classes, pointing out to his Dad how it would all pay off some day when he bred a new kind of cow or came up with new financing ideas for the farm. He finished by describing how he and Arnie built a telescope that could see around corners and then ran around the campus with it, pretending they were James Bond and hunting down SMERSH agents, most of whom looked remarkably like fellow students. What he left out was the big argument they had when Arnie wanted to use it to look up girls' dresses or sneak peeks into the girls' dorm. Spying on people was baby stuff, like what Katie did that made him get so mad, and he was too old to stoop to that, but Arnie said the problem was that he wasn't old enough, which made no sense at all.
Diplomatically, he wrote that he had made one friend but was going to start hanging out with more of the other kids.
When he had sealed the letter, he felt more like crying than ever, but he wasn't about to ask the R.A. if he could call home, like Joey did yesterday. If he did, he'd end up crying right there in public, just like Joey, and maybe even ask them to come pick him up and take him home. That would mean Dad would lose all the money he spent on this special program, and Tom would razz him about being a baby. No. He just had to stick it out until the homesickness faded.
With the letter finished, and his homework done, and the Elvis Presley songs on the radios down the hall dying down, Sam got ready for bed, skipping the bath part. You didn't get dirty at school, not like you did working on the farm. Besides, he'd make up for it by scrubbing extra hard tomorrow. That is, unless he went swimming in the gym pool, where the chlorine would clean him off even better than mere soap.
Since the campus was practically empty in the summer, everybody in the special program got his own room, which was okay in the day. But at night, the room seemed strange, and he felt more lonely than ever.
The instant he flipped the wall light switch down, Sam dived for the bed, trying to get under the covers before the light actually went off. He didn't break the speed of light, but he sure tried. Safely ensconced, he muttered a quick prayer, racing through the litany of "God blesses," then curled up and tried to sleep.
At some point the attempt became reality, and Sam found himself still at the university, but somehow he had to feed Bossie, only Tom kept moving her from the gym to the piano practice hall, where her mooing distracted people's rehearsals. He was just sure that if Tom took her to the cafeteria, she'd end up as hamburgers, and they'd both be in a lot of trouble, especially when Dad found out his best milk cow got eaten up. She should never have come to college in the first place. Sam was using the spy 'scope to hunt for her when Arnie interfered.
"Sam? Psst! Sammy, wake up."
"Huh?" He sat bolt upright. "Arnie? How did you get in here?"
"You left your door unlocked."
"I did not!"
"Keep your voice down. Do you want the R.A. to hear you?"
Their Resident Advisor on this floor was a Junior, pimple-faced and mean-looking, who probably wouldn't like little kids waking him up in the middle of the night. When they moved in, he made them all sit in a circle while he warned them to follow the rules and be good, or else. Nobody wanted to know what "or else" meant.
Sam lowered his voice to match Arnie's whisper. "What are you doing here? It's the middle of the night."
"Ahh, it's not that late. I had an idea how we can get back at old Sourpuss for treating you bad."
He rubbed his eyes, half expecting Arnie to turn out to be a dream, like Tom and Bossie. "Couldn't it wait until tomorrow?"
"No, we gotta do it in the dark, so we don't get caught. See what I got here?"
"No. It's dark in here."
"Cherry bombs. We can set 'em off under his bed. Scare the beard right off his face!"
"He's so old. What if he has a heart attack?"
"What of it? He's asking for it, putting us down, isn't he? Come on, Sam, it's just a practical joke. We're not talking atom bombs here."
"Arnie, I'm really tired. And we're not supposed to break curfew. And I'm not gonna break into a professor's house."
"What are you? A coward?"
"No. I'm sleepy." Trying to compromise, he offered, "I'll go set off cherry bombs by the pond with you tomorrow after class, if you wanna go."
"How about in Sourpuss's class? We can roll 'em under his desk."
"No. We'll get in big trouble, I'm telling you."
Arnie's whisper was getting frustrated. "What if we put a mousetrap in his desk drawer?"
"Do you know what that could do to a guy's fingers?" Sam forgot to whisper, having seen decapitated mice in traps back home.
"Are you a man, or a wimp?"
"I'm not crazy, but I'm starting to think you are. What's gotten into you, Arnie?" Sam blinked, wondering when he started sounding so much like his father. "Look, just go back to your own room before we get caught."
"You're the one who's not normal! I can't believe you're gonna let that scuzzy old man walk all over you."
Sam stretched out and pulled the covers over his head. "I'm not listening to you, Arnie."
"Come on, Sammy--"
"Goodnight," he said, trying to sound as firm as Dad would have. When that didn't work, he added a couple fake snores.
Arnie said a really bad word. After a minute, the door clicked. Sam threw back the covers and made sure it was locked again, then crawled back into bed, yawning.
(Tomorrow I start making new friends. Arnie is Bad News.)
Somewhere in the middle of the night, Al Thames was blasted from a contented and surfeited sleep by a basso drill instructor's voice, ordering him awake, as the bedroom lights came on. He was so startled that he nearly rolled out of bed, but his grip on Teri's supple form saved him. Heart pounding, he untangled himself and sat up.
"Shut up! You're gonna wake her up."
"Pulse Communication Technician Corrao should report to her own quarters now," the voice ordered. "Thames, report to the Imaging Chamber at once."
"At four in the morning? What is this, sleep deprivation?" The more awake he got, the madder he got. "You were listening to us, weren't you? Don't we have any privacy around here?"
"Report to the Imaging Chamber," the voice said. It sounded like it was coming from more than one place in the apartment.
Teri wriggled out of the other side of the bed, snatching up bits of discarded clothing. "It's okay. I'm going."
If he knew where the damned spying device was hidden, he'd rip it out and smash it. Did they have a camera in here, too?
"Will an escort be required?" There was a sinister overtone that made what should have been a simple question seem somehow threatening.
"No, he's getting dressed now," Teri assured the ceiling, throwing Al a terrified glance. "And I'm on my way."
"What if I don't want you to go?"
Her eyes got huge and wet again. "Thames!"
"Aw, Geez Louise." He ran one hand over his face. "Fine. Go." Grimacing, he yanked open a drawer. "I suppose this means my brain waves passed inspection?"
This time the voice seemed perturbed. "There were some anomalies we have yet to understand, but it was within acceptable parameters."
"So you had to wake me right up to give me the good news?"
Teri winced, hesitating in the doorway, then blew him a kiss. Al nodded, starting to pull on silver lame socks, and she vanished, blending into the shadows in the still-dark living room.
"You are to appear in Beckett's bedroom and 'haunt' him, after reporting to Zoe. R.J. is having difficulty manipulating him; if he is emotionally off-balance, he should be less resistant. Ghosts are most effective in the early hours, when the witnesses are sleepy."
"Fine. I'll be there. Meanwhile, get outta my room. Turn your speakers off. This isn't a performance."
Logos didn't speak. Even if he claimed to do it, Al didn't think he would buy it. Steaming, he grabbed from the closet the first outfit he saw. That meant this year's ghosts were sporting gold alligator-pattern jumpsuits with yellow silk vests, and the unshaven look was in. At least he was in a suitably disgruntled mood to scare just about anyone he ran into.
When his eyes fell on the bed, still warm and rumpled, his bad mood softened just a little. The romp with Teri had taught him one thing, anyway: he was never too tired or too upset for romance.
His scowl returned. Teri had been pathetically grateful for what was just an ordinary bedroom tango. When she wept, and smiled through the tears, she said he was 'so different.' Different how? At the time, he shrugged it off, claiming he had been studying up, but the fact was, making love had triggered all sorts of flashbacks, and they were all the same. The women were different--ranging from brunettes through redheads to silver-white dreamboats--and the places varied--on a moonlit beach, in a black sports car, on a boat, standing up against a wall somewhere, several times on the train to Niagara Falls--but all of them were happy experiences, for him and for the women. How could he have enjoyed himself so thoroughly with so many women, who also seemed content, and then have stuck to rough handling and abuse with Teri? Happy partners are much more fun.
There were scars on Teri's body.
(I don't beat women. I'm not into torture, my own or anyone else's. I'm not.)
Some of those porno magazines on the table over there were pure S & M.
(Maybe Logos put 'em there. Maybe bondage is his idea of fun, but it's not mine. Never was, never will be.)
A worried voice in the back of his mind wondered why Teri was so afraid of him then, but Al quashed it. It didn't bear thinking about.
Neither amorous acrobatics nor the few minutes of sleep had brought back his memory. Snippets of other romances didn't help him navigate the Project maze any better. At least there weren't many night owls around to notice him wandering around, utterly lost. How come they didn't put maps on some of these walls?
(So Logos'll have to wait awhile. Serves him right.)
More by accident than from memory, Al blundered into a vaguely familiar hallway. When he tried it walking it backwards a few steps, he decided this was the route Mario and Guido had hauled him, and backtracked his way to the Control Room, where they had grabbed him.
The Control Room was only dimly lit, the shadows punctuated by a crayola box of colored lights flickering on various panels. In the reflected lights, the faces of the three black-uniformed men setting up the link were strained and oddly colored. Well, good. If Al had to be sleepless and miserable, they could, too.
None of them seemed interested in conversation. At least one of those faces had watched him get dragged from the I.C. by his elbows without a word of protest or sympathy. Ignoring them all, Al stepped into the I.C., fingering the hand-link.
"So start, already."
Standing in the dark, waiting for the link-up with Zoe, he had glimpses of other memories, other Leaps, as if a door somewhere in his mind had briefly cracked open. Every fleeting image was of a taller young man, perhaps in his early forties, a man with longish brown hair distinguished by a single white forelock falling into warm hazel eyes. Unlike the faces around here, his often wore a boyish smile. He was swaggering in a football uniform, then riding a motorcycle, then awkwardly dancing dressed up as a hairy- legged Carmen Miranda. That last bizarre image made Al laugh, but then the door snapped shut, and the memories were gone.
Who was he? An earlier partner? Why did Al have to work with Zoe instead of him?
Even before Logos announced it, Al felt goosebumps and knew linkage had been achieved. Swallowing, he stepped through a glowing white doorway, and the Imaging Chamber became even darker. Al shook the hand-link irritably, then decided this wasn't a technical difficulty after all. Judging from the snoring, he had stepped into Zoe's bedroom.
(The Ice Lady snorts like a pig rooting in slop? Unbelievable. This I've gotta see.)
Al moved closer to the bed, but when Zoe sat up, reaching for a negligee, the snoring continued unbroken. Realizing that, like Logos, he was interrupting a sexual interlude, Al backpedaled and ended up walking right through the wall. Fiddling with the hand-link centered him on Zoe, standing in a book-cluttered study, about to light a cigarette.
"Uh, sorry about that."
She spared him an amused smile. "For once, I Leaped into someone with a lifestyle I can enjoy. She has good taste in men. Matt, in there, was a virgin, or near enough to make no difference." She drew in a lungful of nicotine. "An amusing way to pass the time. Sorry I can't offer you a smoke."
"I prefer cigars anyway."
"Oh, really? When did that start?"
Since he had no idea, he shrugged. The fact was, he had a craving for the feel and taste of a cigar, even unlit, but there didn't seem to be any in his place at the Project. He figured he must be trying to give them up. If so, it wasn't working. "Logos wants me to scare Beckett so he'll be easier to work with."
Smoke curled out of her nostrils as if she was some sort of dragon. "Good idea. R.J. could use that to get him involved in an 'exorcism' rite. Start with piddling stuff, sacrificing a lizard, and work his way up until the good Dr. Beckett is committed."
There she went again, calling that little kid a doctor. Not likely. Sometime in the future, that tan little fellow must grow up to be doctor. An unpopular one, at least with Al's crowd.
"I'm not dressed like a ghost," he objected.
"You wanted a sheet?"
"Or some makeup."
Zoe arched an eyebrow. "I can picture you in whiteface, singing a chorus of 'De Camptown Races.' It certainly frightens me."
"Working with you is such a pleasure, Zoe."
"The feeling has always been mutual, Thames." Her upper lip curled over the cigarette. "If you had been a better back-up during my last run-in with Beckett, Alia wouldn't have escaped."
Alia? Who or what was that? One more incomplete piece to the puzzle, with no hint as to where it should be placed. At least he was starting to get names.
Zoe stubbed out the cigarette. "Go terrorize Beckett. I still have some lessons to teach Matt. Come back at a decent hour and let me know how it went."
With somewhat mixed emotions, he signaled Logos. Staying with this viper of a woman held no appeal. Granted, the idea of surprising someone, playing the Big Bad Boogie Man, sounded like loads of fun. But scaring a kid? Practically a toddler? It left a bad taste in his mouth. Now he really wanted that cigar.
Zoe's borrowed living room became another dark bedroom. This was getting monotonous. Al hesitated.
(Hey, maybe I'm doing a good deed. Maybe the kid grows up to be some sort of super-Nazi genius, and we're here to stop that. Like Scared Straight.)
The little body in the bed stirred. "Arnie? Is that you again?"
Deciding that using the hand-link to make subharmonic frequencies to make the kid uneasy would be overdoing it, Al settled for leaning over the bed, arching his fingers into claws, baring his teeth, and hollering, "BOO!"
With a single muffled squeak, Beckett burrowed back under the covers, then slowly peeled them back for a second, wide-eyed look. Al watched with interest, sure that if they had traded places, he'd still be cowering under the covers. "Wh-Who are you?" the kid asked in a small voice.
"I am the Ghost of Christma--er, the Ghost of the Future."
"The Future isn't gone yet. It can't have a ghost."
"Well, it does."
His voice was firmer. "I don't believe in ghosts."
"Oh, yeah? Boo!" The little body quivered but didn't hide. Impressed, Al conceded, "Okay, so you don't, but it doesn't matter if you believe or not. I'm here."
"You don't look like a ghost."
"Being dead is an equal-opportunity employer. We're all different." Thinking it over, he started to get worked up. "Besides, how would you know what a ghost's supposed to look like? Aren't I all fuzzy and hard to see, kinda fading in and out? You know any non-ghosts who do that?"
"You're not a ghost. You're a--an optical delusion, that's all."
"I am not! I oughtta know what I am, and what I am is a ghost!"
They glared at each other in the darkness. Cautiously, the kid slid out of bed, sticking tight against the wall, and edged over to the wall light switch.
"Go ahead. Kids are afraid of the dark, but ghosts aren't afraid of the light. See?" Still visible when the light came on, Al wagged his fingers at Beckett. "Booooo!"
His voice cracking but his head held high, Beckett said, "If you're a ghost, do something ghostly."
Sheesh! What a hard sell! If saying 'boo' didn't do it, maybe this would. Smirking, Al strolled right through the bed, waving his arms dramatically. Wide-eyed, the boy dove for the bed and ducked back under the covers and curled into a tight ball. From beneath the pillow, he yelled, "Go away! I've having a bad dream, but when I wake up, you'll be gone!"
(Boy, aren't I special. I can make a ten-year-old cry.)
Al punched the hand-link with his forefinger, making the bedroom turn into the Imaging Chamber again.
"I scared the daylights outta him. Are you happy now?"
Logos didn't answer. Disgusted, he strode out of the I.C. and past the startled technicians.
Being spooky wasn't as much fun as it should have been. It would've been a real kick in the butt to play ghost with a politician or some powerful weasel like a businessman or divorce attorney, but scaring the wits out of a little boy made him feel like a bully. Like the guy who made Teri flinch and read those bondage mags.
Out in the web of intersecting corridors, he paused. Why go back to his own dump? There was nothing there he wanted to see. Maybe if he just walked around, the Project would finally start to look familiar.
(When I was a snot-nosed kid, I was really scared of ghosts. Jeez, I still am.)
That was a real memory again. The kid hiding in his bed reminded him of being in the dorm, scared spitless by the gory tales of the older boys. They used to talk about some poor kid who got locked in the basement by a nun who forgot him, so he starved to death after gnawing off his own toes and fingers, and now he haunted the orphanage, trying to replace the missing digits. Even with a bad case of amnesia, he couldn't forget wetting his bed because he was too scared to walk down the dark hall to the toilets.
Nuns used to glide up behind you at night just like ghosts, draped all in black except for that stiff white bib, and if you hadn't been a healthy youngster your heart would probably have exploded and killed you. Even when he was a teenager, and more interested in visiting the girls' side than the toilet, he could be sent into paroxysms of terror by the silent touch of a nun's hand on his shoulder. To avoid attracting their attention, he learned to move just as quietly as the nuns. After that it gave him immense satisfaction to sneak up behind the worst offenders and give them near-coronaries by dropping his hand onto a black-shrouded shoulder. Paybacks are bliss.
His bad mood melted away. His memory was returning in uneven patches, but it was returning.
The corridors were starting to become populated, mostly by irritable-looking people in uniforms. Maybe only Leapers and Observers were of high enough rank to wear civvies; he didn't have one of those black scuba diving-style outfits in his closet. Did the monotonous dress help make them so unsociable? Why did he keep feeling surprised not to see people dressed normally but sporting flashing neon-like buttons shaped like stars?
Something tiny dashed at his feet, about the size of a rat but yapping in a shrill falsetto as it threatened to tear him apart. Rats are solid colors, not a black-and-white mix, so he bent to scoop up what turned out to be a mini-fox-terrier. It squirmed in his hands, tail wagging. Al was charmed.
"Aren't you a cute little guy? Where do you think you're going?"
His opinion of this place shot up. Any job site that let you keep pets was okay in his book, and he especially liked dogs. If he had a pet to come home to, the apartment would seem more home-like, only maybe Teri was allergic to dog hair or something.
A stocky woman lumbered around the corner, panting, then drew up short, shoving greying blonde hair from her face. "Oh, you caught him. Good. I don't know what happened, he just slipped away from me while I was preparing him for Sunday's ceremony."
Al rubbed the dog's ears. "What's his name?"
"I don't know. Josef got it from his neighbor."
"Oh, a donation," he hazarded, fishing for information.
She eased the dog out of his hands, chuckling. "And they tried to tell me you had no sense of humor." She shook her head, smiling. "'Donation.' I'll have to remember that."
Unsure why that was funny, he offered, "I used to have a dog. His name was...Abe? No. Chester. That was it."
She didn't seem interested. "Will we see you on Sunday?"
(Some sort of pet show?) "I'm not sure."
She nodded good-naturedly. "Holding out for the big one, eh? Not that I blame you." Glancing up and down the hallway first, she leaned in close, lowering her voice. "They say we'll have twins this year."
Dogs could have twins? He didn't know that. Since this woman, whoever she was, was the friendliest co-worker he had met so far, outside of Teri, he decided to ask her a question he refused to ask Logos. "Listen, do you know where Teri Corrao is quartered?"
"You don't know?"
He drew himself erect. "Until now, she's always had to come to me."
"And now you're going to surprise her before she comes on shift. That should be...interesting." She grinned rather maliciously, and tucked the panting terrier under one plump arm. "Step inside the Zoo and I'll check the register. It won't take a minute."
The Zoo was some sort of office. While she poked at a computer keyboard, Al stared at the back of the room, where glass-enclosed cages of cats and dogs were piled on top of each other. Was this some sort of pet shop, or was the lady a groomer, or what?
At least the inquiry would have her access code on it, not his. But if Logos bugged his suite, he probably bugged everybody's, so going to Teri's place was no guarantee of privacy. On the other hand, he didn't want to tell Logos his mind was full of moon craters and he'd forgotten where his main squeeze lived.
"I thought she was in the duos," the woman muttered as the PC's screen flashed. "Second level, room 236."
"Thanks, Ms...." He squinted at her nameplate. "Ms. Lee. I'll remember this."
"Let me know who you catch her with."
The avid gleam in those friendly blue eyes made him feel queasy. She was hoping he'd find Teri cheating on him and 'punish' her. So much for sociability.
By the time he reached the second floor, he was beginning to worry. Why did he have so many memories of making love to so many different women? Did he get cheated on so often that he had to keep getting new steadies? Or was he the one with the monogamy phobia?
Touching the pad outside her door opened it, but he didn't know if this meant Teri programmed it to admit him or was simply a prerogative of his higher rank.
Living space in the Project must be severely limited. Teri's place was much smaller than his, basically a bathroom and a bedroom stocked with sofa beds, and she apparently had to share it with another woman. Teri sat up in her bed, sleepy-eyed, but when she focused on him sudden alarm erased the sleep.
"Thames? Did I do something wrong?"
Her room-mate, also black but kind of chubby, was already in uniform. Snatching up a clipboard, she said, "I'll go get some breakfast or something, and get out of your way, okay?"
He waited until the door whooshed shut behind her. "You didn't do anything wrong, babe. I missed you, and I've got a few hours before I have to link with Zoe again, so I thought maybe I'd get some sleep." Watching the sheet slip down from a pair of firm, dark breasts, he added hopefully, "Or maybe not...."
Take me to Jane Leavell's Story Page, because I've got a hot date with Al Calavicci in another story.
I want to Leap to the main page