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Wheel of Fate

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Some leap-ins were a breeze, others required split second decisions. This one was unlike any Sam Beckett could remember experiencing. The first thing he noticed was that his arm was raised at an unusual angle. Immediately on the heels of that, he felt something hard against his temple, and realized his finger was curled dangerously around something that his startled brain identified as the trigger of a gun. And about to squeeze...

Sam wrenched the gun away from his head with a gasp, heart pounding. That's what I call a close one... He'd no sooner decided he must have been there to prevent a suicide, when he noticed several young faces, all staring at him.

"What's with you, Kyle?" asked a pimply-faced boy with long black hair, who looked to be no older than sixteen.

Sam stared back in total confusion. "What's...with me?" he repeated, stalling.

"Yeah. Why didn't you pull the trigger?"

"Kill myself??" Sam stammered, surveying his surroundings. All his companions were very obviously teenagers, dressed alike in typical teen-style; jeans and T-shirts with sayings varying from 'Pete's B. B-Q' to a black Harley Davidson with the sleeves cut off. He was sitting on the couch in someone's living room. It was a typical generic-looking, middle class room. Lived-in but neat, done in forgettable shades of brown and yellow.

Sam clicked on the safety of the gun, gripping it tightly.

"I think he's turned chicken, George," a slightly older-looking boy with dark hair and even darker eyes, told the one with the pimples. Something about the sneer on his face gave Sam the impression this one didn't like the kid he'd leaped into.

"Leave him alone, both of you!" the third spectator defended with vehemence. He was the youngest looking of the group, probably because of the lack of hardness in his face. His feature's were smooth, and he had sandy brown hair and vivid blue eyes. "He's gonna take his turn. Right, Kyle?"

"Take my turn?" Sam uttered, realizing he'd developed a serious habit of imitating a myna bird since he started leaping. "What turn?" he said to break the monotony.

"Joe's right, he's just bluffing, Gary," pimple-faced George told Sam's defender. "He's chickened out."

The pieces were finally starting to fill in, Sam realized with growing disbelief and horror. If taking his turn meant putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger...

"You're talking about Russian Roulette!" he blurted. Still, even though he knew what was going on, it was difficult to imagine anyone, no matter how young, being foolish enough to take such a stupid risk.

"No shit, Sherlock," Joe-of-the-dark-eyes snapped. "And since when did you turn yellow? You're the one who came up with this idea."

"This is not a game," Sam stated firmly, breathing a silent sigh of relief that he'd leaped in before any of these kids could get hurt.

"He's just...nervous," Kyle's defender Gary explained, with a fleeting glance at Sam. "I'll take my turn." He reached for the gun.

Sam pulled the hand that held the gun out of reach. "Oh no, you won't! This isn't a game, this is stupid!"

"Aw man, what a drag!" George muttered under his breath.

"So's dying," Sam told him and got up, heading for the door.

"Hey, bring that gun back here, I gotta put it back in my old man's study!" George called out.

"He'll get it back," Sam told the boy. "After I tell him what's been going on." He was aware he wasn't acting like Kyle would have, but he honestly didn't know what else to do at the moment. He couldn't allow this crazy game to go on. He wished Al would show up, he desperately needed information on this leap.

"Now you are crazy!" Joe yelled after him.

"You can't do that and you know it!" George told Sam's retreating form. "It'll be your ass in trouble along with us!"

"He's bluffing," Sam heard Joe tell the others. "He'll keep his mouth shut--or else."

Sam didn't particularly like that 'or else', but he walked outside without a backward glance. He'd assumed the house was George's, but it could just as easily be his, he realized. Well, if it was, he could just claim he'd gone out for some air.

Speaking of air, there was plenty of it. A brisk wind blew steadily as he glanced around the immediate area. It looked like he was in a small town, in the mid-to western part of the country. Because of that, the time period was highly unpredictable. Most of the houses on the street were pretty run down, the years of the cars between the late sixties and mid-seventies.

There were several cars in the driveway and one in front of the house. Sam stood there uncertainly. He was once again praying for Al to arrive, when Gary came out of the house and put an arm around his shoulders.

"What's going on, Kyle? Why'd you say those things?"

"Maybe I decided it wasn't such a good idea after all," Sam answered.

"You shouldn't let the guys think you're chicken," Gary said with something that sounded like disappointment. "You may be my big brother, but sometimes I think you aren't so smart."  He shook his head and walked over to a blue Pontiac Le Mans. "Can I drive?" he asked with a hopeful expression.

"Sure," Sam agreed easily and joined his 'brother', thankful he wouldn't have to worry about finding his house this time. He rooted around in his jacket pocket, coming up with a set of keys, and tossed them to Gary. "Go for it."

"Thanks!" Gary exclaimed as they got into the car. "Even if you are only trying to make up to me for disgracing the family in there."

"Dis--" Sam shut up, deciding to marshal his strategy before trying to talk some sense into the kid. Little brothers were notoriously hard to deal with...and he knew this from experience. He was one.

"I leave you alone for a minute, and..." Al's voice intruded suddenly, then trailed off in disgust.

Startled, Sam jerked around, banging his head on the window. "I've got everything under control," he said under his breath to the hologram.

"Then why are you letting a fifteen-year-old without a license drive you home?" asked the calm voice from the back seat.

Sam's head whipped around in shock. "Fif--pull over!" he told Gary.

"Huh?"

"I said, pull over, now."

When Gary had done as told with a muttered curse, Sam got out of the car, walked over to the driver's side and opened the door. "Out."

"What? Why?" Gary asked in confusion.

"Because I'm the big brother and I say so. Now get."

Muttering more curses under his breath, Gary stalked over and slid into the passenger seat. Sam got behind the wheel and pulled onto the road again.

Behind him, Al was punching buttons on the handlink and puffing on a cigar. "Your name is Kyle Matthews, and you're seventeen. This is your brother, Gary. It's June 25, 1983, and you're in Ashland Kansas. That's down near the Oklahoma border. Get used to the wind. What we call a hurricane, they call a light breeze. Oh well, it could be worse, you could be in Oklahoma City," he said with obvious disgust. "Next to Cleveland..."

Sam listened to Al, trying to figure out how to let him know that while he appreciated the background, what he really needed right now was a little information about where they lived.

"You're acting really weird tonight," Gary told Sam emphatically.

"Like how?" Sam asked, biting his tongue to keep from saying something sarcastic that would alienate him further from the boy.

"Like you just passed up our street."

Sam backed the car up and drove down the street he'd overshot, tossing a glare over his shoulder at the hologram.

"Sorry," Al said mildly. "It's the third house on the right."

As soon as Sam pulled into the driveway, Gary yanked open the door. "If tonight shook you up that much, maybe you are the coward they said you are!" He closed the door with a slam that shook the entire car, and ran into the house.

Sam sighed and turned to face Al. "Do you know what I was doing when I leaped in?!" he demanded.

Al grimaced unpleasantly. "Yeah. When Kyle showed up in the waiting room, he thought he'd died."

"These kids think playing with a loaded gun is a game!"

Al nodded. "To them, it is. I guess you don't remember, but back in the Eighties playing Russian roulette was a minor fad among high school, and even college kids. They'd put one bullet in the chamber, then pass it around."

"That's insane!"

"It's quicker than drugs," Al replied with disgust. "They thought it made them real cool, real brave. A rite of manhood. A lot of them just ended up real dead."

"Obviously I didn't just leap in to stop the game tonight, because I haven't leaped out. So why am I here?"

"You really need Ziggy for that one?" Al asked. "Well, actually, you were here to keep Kyle from pulling the trigger." Sam glanced down at the gun nestled in his waistband. "That baby had your name on it, Sam. But now, instead of Kyle, Gary gets killed--tomorrow night."

"Great," he muttered. "Even if I tell the authorities what's going on?"

Al checked the handlink. "Ziggy says the odds are 88% it'll still happen. Kids manage to get guns, Sam. Even in a small town like this."

"I guess I have to talk to him." Sam looked towards the house, not relishing his task.

"Good luck."

 

XXX

 

Kyle's house wasn't as middle-class looking as George's. The curtains were so dirty, it was hard to tell what color they were, and the furniture was in a state of disrepair. It had been a nice house once, but it showed a definite neglect.

The details Sam learned from his exposure to Kyle's family didn't reassure him any. From what he gathered, they'd been happy once. Then the boys' mother died in a car accident, three years ago. The man had been driving drunk and happened to be one of the wealthiest men in the county, and they were still living off of the money from the court settlement. Which was a good thing, because their father had never gotten over his wife's death. He'd lost his job, and now spent most of his time siting in front of the television, drinking.

John Matthews wasn't a violent drunk. He was a morose, self-pitying person who didn't bother anyone for any reason, including spending time with his sons. Sam could tell by the way Gary looked at his father, they had little respect for the man. He was something to be ashamed of, a failure.

It was summer, which meant the boys were free to roam the neighborhood all day long, with no adult supervision or guidance. Maybe that was the reason they thought they had to prove how tough they were, that they weren't like their father.

Sam knocked on Gary's door later that night, after enduring his icy silence all through a dinner that he'd had to cook. There was no answer, but he wasn't expecting any.

"C'mon, Gary, I'm gonna stand here all night and bang on your door if you don't let me talk to you." Sam heard a mumble that he decided to take as invitation, and opened the door.

Gary was laying on his bed, reading a copy of Guns and Ammo. He didn't even look up when Sam sat down in the chair next to the bed.

The room was dark, lit by one naked bulb in the corner. There was a dart board, and a couple of girlie and rock posters on the walls. Plenty of magazines littered the dresser and floor. There were several Creem and Hit Paraders, a couple of gun magazines. Clothing was draped haphazardly across furniture and strewn on the floor.

"I know you're upset with me," Sam began when it was clear the boy would let the silence continue indefinitely.

Gary shot him a glaring look which didn't need interpretation. "What ever gives you that idea, dear brother?" he said with exaggerated sweetness.

Sam winced. "Look, I'm just tying to take care of us," he tried, guessing intuitively that it had been Kyle's job since the accident.

"By chasing away our friends? Making us look like the coward that--making us lose respect?!"

So that was it, Sam mused. "How much respect do you think a dead man gets?"

"Hell, I'd respect Dad a lot more if he had just blown his brains out!" Gary yelled, flinging the magazine across the room.

Sam grabbed his shoulders, forcing Gary to look at him. "No, you wouldn't," he said softly. "You don't want him to die, you just want him to be a father again, like he used to be."

Gary wiped angrily at the tears which were building up in his eyes. "Just because she died, he wants to die now...and you know it! He just doesn't have the guts to do it."

"It takes guts to live, Gary. Dying's the easy way out." He tried to twist away, but Sam held on. "It's okay, little brother. Men cry too, believe me. Even the tough ones."

"How would you know?!" Gary demanded.

From somewhere, a strange inspiration hit Sam. He didn't know if it would work, but it was worth a shot. "I know a man," he began. "A...teacher of mine. He's in his sixties, now. You think we have it tough? Well, his mother didn't die, she deserted the family, just walked out on them. Then when he was ten, his father died of cancer. He was put in an orphanage, and his sister was locked up in a mental institution--that's where they put retarded people in those days. She died of pneumonia before he could get her out. He ran away several times, lived on city streets, trying to survive. But he was smart, he knew how to fight back when life got him down. He went to school, worked his butt off to get the best grades, and joined the Navy. He fell in love and got married."

"Sounds like a happy ending to me," Gary commented, but his face was pensive, he was thinking.

"It should have been," Sam agreed sadly. "During the war, his plane was shot down and he was captured. He spent five years as a prisoner of war, going through things you and I couldn't even imagine in our worst nightmares. When he was finally rescued, he found out his wife had had him declared legally dead so she could marry another guy."

"It's hard to imagine someone having that much bad happen to them," Gary finally said, quietly.

"The point is, he didn't let it destroy him. He rose above it all, learned from it. He's one of the strongest, bravest men I know. I wish I could be more like him. And he's not afraid to cry," Sam added for good measure.

Glancing up, he saw Al standing there, looking like he wasn't sure whether to be highly insulted, or deeply touched.

"And you talked to him, didn't you?" Gary asked. "He doesn't think our game is brave, that's why you changed your mind."

"I think it's stupider than walking into a quantum accelerator with only a seven percent chance of retrieval," Al agreed.

"Yes," Sam answered Gary, ignoring Al's comment. It was working out even better than he'd hoped. He'd underestimated little brothers... they might be stubborn, but when they adored their big brothers, it wasn't hard to influence them.

If it had been, Sam would have ended up playing basketball for Indiana State, instead of leaping around through time. And he didn't regret it...not when it meant he could help confused boys like Gary and Kyle.

"Our father is alive, and he needs us right now, Gary. Needs us to be strong--to be men--so we can help him get his life together again.

Gary's expression was thoughtful. "Let's say I see your point...what are we going to do about George and Joey? I don't think they're going to be as impressed with your little speech as I was."

"Yeah," Sam agreed reluctantly, wracking his brain for a way to handle the others.  After a moment's hesitation, he grinned.

"Sam...I don't like that look..." Al said warily.

"We'll have to teach them a lesson in adulthood," Sam said, glancing at Al. "And it just might work."

 

XXX

 

The next day, Sam and Gary showed up for their game of Russian Roulette. George's parents were out again, and Sam's opinion of the town and how they raised their children plummeted ever more. Although, in this particular case, he was glad the folks were out.

Gary handed the gun to George. "I talked to Kyle, got things straightened out.  He was just having a bad day."

George and Joe looked at Sam suspiciously. "A bad day, huh?" Joe sneered. "More like a bad life!"

Gary grabbed Joe's collar, intending to stick up for his brother.  Sam jumped between them, breaking it up before it could start. "Why don't we settle this like men?" he forced out between gritted teeth.

Joe smiled, handing the gun to Sam. "Okay--you go first, man."

Sam took the gun, glancing at Gary, and the hologram who stood in the corner, not looking pleased. He never did, even when the plan was relatively safe.

Relatively... Sam stared at the gun in his hand, swallowing. It had to work perfectly. Even loaded with blanks, a gun fired at point blank range could be deadly. It still wasn't a game.

Gary let him stall for the pre-arranged time, then spoke up. "Well, go ahead!"

"I'm gonna, give me a minute," Sam grumbled, while the other two looked at each other and snickered.

"Right," Joe mumbled sarcastically.

"Hey!" Gary pointed a finger at him, then turned to Sam. "What are you waiting for, huh? You said you'd do it, told me you weren't chicken. So prove it!"

"I don't have to prove anything to you, little brother," Sam snapped, glaring at him.

"I can't believe it, my own brother is yellow!" Gary turned away in disgust.

"Shut up!" Sam yelled.

Joe and George found the argument amusing, and didn't interfere. So far, everything was proceeding exactly as planned.

Gary lunged at Sam in mock rage, and they grappled over it for a few tense minutes.

Then the gun went off, and Sam slumped to the floor.

After a frozen moment, Gary fell to his knees beside his brother. He reached under him, his hand coming away covered with red. He turned to the others, who were still paralyzed with shock. "He's dead."

"Oh man..." Joe moaned nervously, eyes darting around the room. "What are we gonna do?" He looked at George almost pleadingly.

"Shit, I didn't...didn't know anything like this would happen," George insisted, suddenly looking more like a scared boy than a tough bully.

"I guess Kyle lost," Gary said philosophically.

"What are you talking about?!" George yelled, jumping up in panic. The game was over for them, reality had chillingly set in. "He's your brother! My god, he's dead..."

"Hey, we were playing with a loaded gun, what did you expect? And you accused Kyle of being chicken? I guess I'm the only man around here."

"Kyle is dead," Joe insisted. "How can you be so cold?"

"I'd better call the cops," George whispered, trying to dial with shaking fingers. He attempted it several times, then the phone fell from his grasp. "What have we done?"

"Good question, kid," the hologram agreed.

"I'm so sorry, Joe mumbled to Kyle's body. "This went too far."

"No shit," Al sneered.

A groan silenced the room of boys. Slowly, Sam began to move. Joe and George ran to his side.

"Kyle?" Joe called in the scared voice of a young boy realizing his mistakes, mortality, and foolishness, all at once. "Please be okay..."

Sam opened his eyes, groaning some more.

"We thought you were dead," George cried.

"I guess I was just stunned," Sam sat up gingerly, arms protectively pressed to his right side, where the 'wound' was supposed to be.

"Thank God," Joe breathed, swaying as if he was about to pass out.

"I guess this wasn't such a cool game," Sam ventured, his eyes meeting Al's with an unspoken message of relief and victory.

"It was a stupid game!" George pronounced. "Hell, there's plenty of ways we can prove we're tough. What's so tough about killing yourself?"

"Bright kid," Al chuckled.

Sam shook his head in disbelief. "You're right," he agreed as if George had just thought of it himself. "Why don't we go out for basketball," he suggested.

"Or Wrestling," Joe countered.

As they began discussing ideas, Al filled Sam in on the results of the leap. "It worked. None of them ever play with a gun again." "Joe gets into hunting, though," he frowned in disapproval. "Well, I guess it's better than shooting at people.  Anyway, after his 'close encounter' with death, Kyle becomes a very religious person. It's through the strength it gives him that he's able to help his father, who eventually re-marries. And get this--because of that influence, Gary becomes a minister."

"Amazing what big brothers can do," Sam murmured fondly. "And best friends, too," he added softly.

Then leaped.

 

the end

7/31/93