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Stranger Beginnings

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"...Okay, okay. I know the rules, all right? You can monitor the I.C. audio--I won't tell him anything I'm not supposed to."

Her cool eyes regarded me, weighing, appraising. Speaking volumes.

"Look, I know I screwed up last time. I won't make the same mistake again."

"Why do you want to see him?" The heel of her red shoe was tapping against the tile floor, in three-four time. Six inch, kind of glittery, reminded me of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

"He's only a kid, for Christ's sake. Alone, scared, confused. I just want to reassure him."

"Anyone can do that." Long fingernails now joined the concert, drumming against a tan arm.

"No. Not anyone. I'm his partner."

"He's sixteen years old--you're a stranger to him."

"But he's not a stranger to me. I'm going in."

A long, breathy sigh. "I'll be listening."

 

XXX

 

I guess you probably have no idea what it's like here, I heard you grew up in a city. It's simple, sometimes dull...mostly it's quiet. I'm sitting in the corn field right now, the stalks are swaying slightly in the breeze. I can smell clover, and the faint tang of manure. You get used to it, it's part of life. Least ways, life here.

The railroad tracks pass by about two miles from our farm, I can hear the whistle now. Did you ever hear that sound and just want to pick up and take off? Sometimes it's like it's calling to me, sounding damned appealing.

Sorry. I know I must sound so shallow. My problems don't amount to jack shit next to yours (...if Ma could hear my language, she'd have a cow!). I think about you sometimes at night, stuck in that POW camp. I wonder what it's like for you, then I think I don't want to know.

Then I think about my brother...

I'm not sure my previous letter made very much sense, maybe I can clarify a bit. They told me some weird stuff when I...came back? I don't really remember where I was, but I couldn't have been here. Tom said I was acting crazy and begging him not to go to 'Nam. A lot of other stuff, too. It wasn't very pleasant for me around here for a few weeks.

I know you probably think my story is nuts, but the only thing I really remember--the only thing I have to grasp onto, is you. Maybe, one day, we'll meet and you'll be able to tell me what it was all about.

I didn't want to bring it up last time (I had enough stuff to lay on you), but I'm sorry about your wife. All I can say is, any woman who would have a guy declared dead and run off with another man isn't worth missing. If anything like that happened to Tom, we'd never give up hope, we'd stick by him. But that's what family is for.

Technically, I guess I'm writing to a dead man...'course, I know you're alive. I have no idea when you'll get out, but I hope it's soon. I told Ma about you, in a round-about way. She said a prayer for you at church on Sunday. I know you don't have a family...but I want you to know you have someone here, who's thinking about you, wanting you to stay safe. There's someone who cares.

You probably want to know why. Well, if you read my first letter, and believed it, then there isn't much more to say. You were really nice to me, I remember that. I feel a strange kind of kinship...I don't know why.

The train just pulled out of the station again. I don't really have such an urge to go with it, after all, I am leaving for college in a few months. It wasn't so much the reality of getting on a train and leaving, it was the...symbolism of it. I feel like someone's got a hold of each arm and they're pulling in opposite directions. Like, I want to go, I want to stay. Tom's always told me my life is waiting out there for me. Yet, I feel guilty about leaving the farm when Tom's still serving in the Seals (interesting coincidence, isn't it, the two of you both being Navy?). No matter which way I chose, it isn't really my decision, you know what I mean? About the only thing I've done lately that really feels like mine is the research I did to find out about you, that and writing to you.

Which, as you can probably tell, I'm not doing a very good job at. I get talking about myself, then I remember you probably don't care about my petty little problems. Then I think, maybe you do, maybe it will help get your mind off your problems. And it helps me, to have someone to 'talk' to. I don't know why I automatically assume you'll understand, but I do. Does that sound strange?

I guess you can tell, you made a big impression on this dumb kid.

It's getting too dark to write anymore, so I'll close for now. Take care of yourself, and if you feel like it, look me up sometime.

 

XXX

 

Dear Sam,

 

Where do I begin? I've got your letters, read every one--several times. How can I tell you what they've meant to me? These nights, they're about all I have to keep me company. To know someone cares

 

I crumpled the latest piece of note paper into a ball and angrily tossed it in the direction of the wastebasket. It rebounded off the record player, and Ray Charles hiccuped. The booze was making me sappy. That didn't stop me from taking another slug--I still needed to dull the pain.

No, the pain was already dulled. I just wasn't sure what was in its place. I stared at the soggy paper, drying on the coffee table. I'd spilled bourbon all over that one. The lines were drying blurry...I took a closer look to be sure it wasn't my eyes...no, the lines were definitely blurry. Didn't matter, I knew almost every word by heart...

 

Al--

I don't know how often I'll be able to write now, I'm pretty busy with my classes. I'm taking an accelerated load, and working on simultaneous degrees.

That doesn't mean I'm not sending all my best wishes out to you, wherever you are. You'll always be in my thoughts.

Since you're reading this, right now, it means you've come home. And things aren't like you thought they would be. I know I'm just that dumb kid. I've never been in love (unless you count my first grade teacher...and my second, and my third, and my...), so I can only imagine how you must be feeling right now. There's not much I, from my inexperienced vantage point, can offer. Except to say that no matter how much it hurts now, time heals. You've come through hell, beat the odds and survived. I know you can get through this, too.

I only met you once, briefly, but there are a few things I know about you, with certainty: You're a good man, who believes in doing what's right, and cares about other human beings. You're intelligent, brave, kind, dedicated, and loyal. And most of all, a survivor.

You deserve someone who appreciates you, and if you hang in there, you'll find that someone. How can I be so sure? Because any woman who realizes what she's got in you, won't ever let go.

I wish I could say something to take away your pain. I do know what it's like to be lonely (I'm pretty damned homesick, myself). To feel like you don't have anyone in the world on your side. I can pick up the phone and call my family...but I still expect Dad to answer... I miss his voice, even miss hearing his grumble when us kids acted up. There's a hole inside of me now. I feel an irrational anger with him, for leaving. I feel guilty, and wonder if I could have done things differently. So maybe I do know a little about what you're feeling, after all.

What I intended to say before I started rambling, was that you can pick up the phone, yourself. It's not a hell of a lot, I wish I could offer more. But it's all I have. My phone number is enclosed. I live off-campus, and I'm home most nights after the library closes (nine pm est.). If you need to talk--and don't mind talking to a dumb kid--I'll be glad to listen.

Take care of yourself.

Sam

 

I'd picked up the phone several times, too. But I was in no emotional state to talk with a complete stranger who'd managed to get closer to me through letters than most of my best friends.

It still hurt, but there was something else inside of me now, too. Crazy as it sounds, I wasn't really alone. I wanted to wallow in my pain, I wanted to mourn the life I'd lost. I wiped at the tears forming with vengeance. They weren't the kind I was supposed to be shedding. The letters had gotten to me--so much so I thought I might start blubbering any second. For the first time in my life, I didn't feel totally alone while I was picking up the pieces. Sam was wrong.

It was a hell of a lot.

I tossed a pillow from the chair over to the record player, and Ray stopped singing. I had a lot of thinking to do, decisions to make. Sobering up to do--maybe I'd see things clearer in the light of day.

Who was this kid?

 

XXX

 

Did you ever do something, and then wake up one day and say what did I do?!! Well, I was having one of those days. It started the moment I arrived in Boston, Massachusetts. I've pulled some crazy stunts in my life...but I decided I'd outdone myself, as I stood outside the apartment I'd learned one Sam Beckett, familiar stranger, lived in.

Of course I was the only one who thought it was crazy. My buddies thought it was a good idea for me to take some time off from the Navy, recapture those carefree days of youth. The VA doctor thought it was good for my emotional well-being, all things considered, to get away and heal my wounds. And the Navy praised my quest for knowledge, my desire to further my career by enrolling at MIT.

I wished my reason was among the above. It was more an instinctual feeling of, 'this is right, do it', than anything else. 'Course, that's how I'd felt about asking Beth to marry me, and look where that had gotten me.

But I wasn't going to think about that anymore. I was starting over, laying the past to rest and looking forward to an interesting--if somewhat mysterious--future. Life would be boring if all our questions were answered, but I did love trying to solve a good mystery.

I rang the doorbell.

 

the end

12/29/93