BEWITCHED, BOTHERED, AND BEWILDERED

by Lee Kirkland

 


Supple arms wrapped tightly around Sam's neck; a delicate scent surrounded him; soft hair brushed against his cheek. The slight body pressed close to his was definitely female, and involuntarily, his arms tightened around her.

When he felt her lift her head from his shoulder, Sam opened his eyes to find the young woman smiling beatifically, eyes still closed. "Catherine?" he whispered in astonishment. "Oh, boy!"

Her eyes opened and she smiled. "I have to go now, Steven, or I'll be late for class." She leaned forward and kissed him. "I'll see you later, okay?"

"What? Oh, yeah, sure," he agreed in bewilderment.

She went out and he sprang up, going to the window to look out. The street outside was narrow, lined with older, four and five-story buildings. He judged the apartment to be on the third floor. Looking down, he saw Catherine come out and wave down a passing cab. He watched until it disappeared around a corner.

Turning, he surveyed his surroundings. The flat was tiny, a one room studio with a small kitchen sectioned off in one corner and a bathroom partitioned off in another.

"Rich kids," a voice behind him announced.

"What?" Sam spun to face the voice.

"Rich kids playing at being poor," Al repeated.

"Al, did you see her? That's Catherine Chandler. Only I think she's younger. And she kissed me!"

Al looked interested. "Really? Lemme check it out." He punched a few keys on his hand-held computer link and slapped the side of it when it didn't respond quickly enough.

"Let's see," he mused, half to himself. "Your name is Steven Bass. It's January 23, 1983, and you're a law student at Columbia University."

"But Catherine," Sam insisted. "What am I doing with Catherine?"

Al punched more buttons. "Uh-oh." Al frowned and chewed on the end of his cigar.

"Uh-oh? What? What's wrong?" Sam half-reached to grab Al's arm before remembering he wouldn't be able to touch him.

Al cocked his head, as if a different angle might change what he was seeing. "You live together. And you're engaged to be married."

"To Catherine?" Sam asked, incredulous. "But what about Vincent?"

Al shrugged. "Ziggy won't be able to help us there," he reminded. "He has no record of Vincent's existence."

"But what about Catherine? Doesn't she know..."

"Maybe she doesn't know him yet," Al suggested.

Sam thought. "No, you're right, she doesn't," he remembered. "It was in Vincent's journals... they meet in 1987. He finds her in Central Park, bleeding to death because her face has been slashed."

Al pushed a few more buttons. "Uh-oh, Sam."

Sam wished that for once, Al would get to the point without all the buildup. "What?"

"I checked with Ziggy. He says there's no record of Catherine being attacked in 1987. He says she's not with the D.A.'s office; she's not even a lawyer!" He punched buttons frantically. "She doesn't finish law school, Sam! She marries this guy Steven instead."

"That's not possible, Al. We've just come from 1993; we saw her! She's married to Vincent, she's the mother of his children. I saved her life once!"

"I know, Sam, but Ziggy says that doesn't matter! If you don't keep her from marrying Steven, none of that will happen!" When excited, Al talked with his hands, and now he was especially agitated. Sam was glad there was no danger of being struck by an errant gesture. "You've got to stop her, Sam! She has to meet Vincent and marry him! If you don't, little Albert will never be born!"

"Al, there's more to this than your namesake!" Sam said, exasperated. "What does Ziggy say I'm here to do?"

Al calmed a little and consulted the computer. "He agrees with me," he answered smugly. "He says there's a ninety-six percent chance that you're here to keep Catherine Chandler from marrying Stephen Bass."

"What happens if I don't?" Sam inquired.

Al was intent on his hand link. "Ziggy says if she marries Steven, her whole life changes. She withdraws from her friends, even her father. And Sam..." Al looked up, hesitant. "Ziggy's looking at her medical records..."

Sam knew without Al telling him. "He hits her."

Al nodded. "Yeah. Over the years, he's broken her arm, her jaw, her ribs... you have to stop it, Sam. You can't let that happen to her. Vincent would never forgive you."

Vincent would never forgive you. Sam spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the small apartment, trying to push the echo of Al's statement from his mind. What Vincent would or would not forgive was immaterial now. Remembering his sister's abusive first marriage, Sam knew he wouldn't be able to forgive himself if he didn't do what was best for Catherine.

The part he couldn't understand was why this was happening at all. As he'd said to Al, they'd already seen Catherine Chandler's future, and Steven Bass wasn't part of it. And all Al could say in reply was, "Ziggy says that doesn't matter. Ziggy says this is the way it is."

It was unsatisfactory, but Sam couldn't argue with a computer, and the fact remained that he was here, occupying a part of Catherine's life once more.

It was nearly dark outside when he heard a key turn in the lock. Catherine came in weighed down with shopping bags and he moved quickly to lighten her load.

"I stopped by the market," she said, surrendering a brown paper bag to him. "And I brought Chinese for dinner." She moved toward the kitchen. "Steven, why is it so dark in here? I thought you were going to spend the day studying."

"I was... I mean, I am, but..."

She sighed, cutting of his stumbling explanation. "But you got to looking out the window, or thinking, or..."

"Yeah," he agreed sheepishly. "I guess so."

She had her back to him, putting away the few groceries she'd brought home. He couldn't see her face, but the sharp way she moved told him she was annoyed. After a few moments, she spoke.

"Steven, how are you ever going to get through law school if you don't study?"

Sam suspected she was trying very hard not to be angry with him, and he was pondering a reply when the telephone rang.

"I'll get it," he said, thankful for the reprieve, and reached quickly for the kitchen extension. "Hello?" It was only as he lifted the receiver that it occurred to him this call might be for Steven, and he wouldn't have the slightest idea what to say.

A man's brusque voice came over the line. "Hello, Steven, it's Charles Chandler. Is Cathy there?"

Sam didn't have any idea who Charles Chandler was, though obviously he was supposed to know; equally obviously, the man was related to Catherine. He sounded older, so Sam guessed that he was probably her father; Al had mentioned him.

"Yes, sir," he answered guardedly. "Just a minute, I'll get her."

He turned and held out the receiver. "Cath..." he stumbled over her name. Sam had never heard her called by anything but her full name, but maybe that had come later. Her father used a diminutive; maybe Steven did, too.

She didn't seem to find anything unusual in his hesitation, murmuring "thank you," as she took the receiver from his hand. "Hi, Dad, what's up?"

With his guess confirmed, Sam retreated to a far corner of the room to allow her some privacy and give himself time to think. He suspected Al and Ziggy were right and that he was here to disrupt the relationship between Catherine and Steven. But he cared for Catherine, who plainly cared for Steven; he wanted to let her down gently. Idly, he wondered if she had known Steven in the other timeline, the one where she'd eventually met Vincent, and if so, what had happened. That line of thought, like most of the others he'd been pursuing all afternoon, was fruitless and he pushed it aside.

Behind him, Catherine hung up the phone and he turned to face her, coming to a swift decision as he did so. For once there was no rapidly approaching deadline hanging over his head;he would take it slow and easy, feeling out how things stood between Catherine and Steven before choosing a course of action. She was already annoyed with him, so maybe he was on the right track.

He hoped too soon, because she was smiling. "Dad's just making sure we remember we're supposed to meet him for dinner tomorrow night," she said.

Not knowing what to say, he nodded. It seemed to satisfy her and she turned to finish stowing the last of her shopping before bringing out plates and serving dinner from a series of white cartons.

After they ate, Sam retreated to the living-room portion of the small apartment and took a book from a stack on an end table, leafing through it absently. He stiffened when Catherine came and curled up beside him.

She began nuzzling his neck; he tried to ignore her, staring hard at the book. For a moment he thought it was working. She stopped what she was doing and he could feel her watching him. Without Sam knowing quite how it happened, the book went flying to the floor and Catherine draped herself across his lap. He made a futile grab for the book, realizing too late the compromising position he was putting himself into.

Before he could pull back, her arms were around his neck. His resolve began to slip when she started kissing him. He knew he shouldn't respond, but he had always found her attractive, and she was soft, and warm, and maybe just one kiss wouldn't hurt...

"Sam, if Vincent finds out you're messing around with his wife, he's going to rip your arms off."

Startled, Sam jerked his head up, meeting Al's disapproving gaze. "Vincent..." he murmured, remembering.

Catherine tried to draw his head back down and frowned when he resisted. "Who's Vincent?" she murmured against his throat.

"I... he's... nobody... a case I was studying..." Sam fumbled, trying to extricate himself from her embrace.

"Well, study him later," she answered. Her hand went to his shirt and began tugging on the buttons and Sam knew he had to do something.

"Catherine, please," he murmured, and slid sideways, removing her from his lap. Standing, he moved away hastily.

"Steven, what's wrong?" She frowned up at him.

"Nothing. Just..." He stammered, and ran a hand through his hair.

"You'd better get out of here for a little while, Sam," Al advised.

"Yeah. Right. Uh, listen, Cath, I'm going for a walk..." Avoiding her incredulous, hurt stare, he snatched up a jacket and hurried out. Al joined him on the sidewalk and they began to walk.

"What am I going to do, Al? How am I going to convince her that I'm a jerk?"

"Looks like you made a pretty good start," Al observed, puffing on his cigar. "She was mad."

"Yeah." Sam shoved his hands into his pockets and walked faster. "She was mad earlier, too, but she got over it pretty quickly. I think she really loves this guy."

"Yeah, well, she'd better stop loving him, if she knows what's good for her."

"Oh, that's smart, Al. Why don't I just tell her that, so I can leap on out of here?" Sam was almost shouting in his frustration.

"Hey, hey, chill out," Al said, alarmed at his friend's vehemence. "I know it's not going to be easy. But you've got to do this, Sam. This slime ball's no good for her."

Sam already regretted his outburst. This would be a lot easier if he hadn't met Catherine on two previous leaps, and hadn't learned to care for her. He was emotionally involved now, and it affected his judgment. "I know, Al. I'll think of something."

Subdued, and deep in thought, he walked for a while longer before turning back to the tiny walk-up apartment. A key found in his pocket unlocked the door and he eased it open quietly. The room beyond was dark and he could hear the rhythmic sound of someone breathing. As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he saw the couch pulled out into a bed; Catherine curled there, fast asleep.

"Good, Sam," Al whispered, behind him, forgetting for the moment that Catherine couldn't have heard him if he'd shouted. "She's asleep. Now you don't have to worry about her seducing you."

Sam threw him a withering glance, which Al characteristically ignored.

"Hey, Sam," he asked in a more normal voice. "Where are you going to sleep?"

Sam hadn't considered the question until Al mentioned it, but now he looked around the small room. The only furniture was the couch, two end tables, a desk, a bookcase, and two straight chairs. "Good question," he muttered.

"How about the bathtub?" Al suggested helpfully.

Sam glared. "There isn't one," he hissed. "Only a shower."

He looked down. The carpet beneath his feet was clean but thin, and the padding beneath was nearly non-existent. Sighing, he sneaked a pillow from the couch/bed and made himself as comfortable as possible on the hard floor.

"Goodnight, Sam," Al said, and vanished.

Fatigue finally overcame discomfort, and Sam dozed, only to be awakened by someone shaking him.

"Steven? Steven?"

It was still dark outside; the only illumination was from the street lamps three floors below. Sam squinted at Catherine in the dim light.

"Steven?" she asked again. "Come to bed." She tugged at his arm and he sat up groggily.

"Cath? What... what time is it?"

"Just past three," she answered. "What are you doing on the floor?"

"Didn't want to wake you," he mumbled.

To his consternation, she smiled and pressed her forehead against his. "Oh, Steven." Taking his hands, she pulled him up. There was no graceful way for Sam to avoid being led to the bed, and he allowed her to tuck him in. He did manage to divert her kiss to his cheek, and she gave him a curious half-frown before crawling in beside him. She curled, with the ease of long familiarity, against his back, and was almost immediately asleep again. Sam lay awake for a while, rigid with uncomfortable apprehension, but finally he slept, too.

When he woke, sunlight was creeping in beneath the curtains and Catherine was nestled snugly in his arms. As he tried to ease away from her, she opened sleepy green eyes and smiled at him.

"Morning," she whispered, pressing close. "Did you sleep well, once you came to bed?"

"Uh, morning," Sam answered, feeling awkward. "Yeah, I slept okay."

"Weren't you feeling well last night? What were you doing down there?" She rose on one elbow, leaning over him.

"Uh, no, well, yeah, I felt a little... not too good, I guess," Sam stammered.

"Poor baby," she murmured, and pressed her lips against his jaw. "Let me make you feel better."

"Jeez, Sam, do you have to be doing this every time I come in?" Al sounded annoyed.

Sam glared over Catherine's head and tried again to ease away from her. She looked at him, puzzled.

"What's wrong?"

"I... nothing. What time is it?" Off-balance, Sam said the first thing that popped into his mind.

"What time...?" She gazed at him for a moment before rolling over to look at her bedside clock. "Quarter of eight! Omigosh! We overslept!" Moving swiftly, she bounded out of bed and into the bathroom.

Heaving a sigh of relief, he looked upward and whispered a fervent "thank you" before sinking back against his pillow.

"Sam, you've got to learn to keep your hands to yourself," Al admonished severely.

"My hands!" Sam expostulated. "What about her hands? They're all over me!"

"Oh, yeah?" Al shot an interested glance toward the closed bathroom door. "Too bad I'm a hologram. She could put her hands..."

"Al..." Sam's voice held a low warning.

"Okay, okay." Al waved his cigar in surrender. "I only came to tell you that Ziggy says that it's now ninety-nine point three percent sure that you're here to keep Catherine from marrying this Steven guy."

"Does he have any suggestions on how I should do that?" Sam inquired, trying not to sound impatient.

"No, but I talked to Dr. Beeks. She thinks if you just sort of do what you've been doing, and sort of distance yourself..."

"I can't distance myself much further without leaving, Al, and so far, it's not working!"

"Yeah, I know. Well, keep trying. Meanwhile, Ziggy's digging through all his psychology programs, looking for answers."

"You guys are a lot of help," Sam answered, exasperated, and climbed out of bed.

As it happened, Steven and Catherine had classes together, which made it hard to follow Al's advice.

"Steven, are you sure you aren't coming down with something?" Catherine asked at lunch, touching the back of her hand to his cheek.

He flinched away, shaking his head. "No, I don't think so." The last thing he needed was for her to decide that his behavior was only temporary, brought on by illness. That wouldn't solve anything, and she'd still end up marrying Steven. "Just a little headache."

She leaned toward him. "I'm sorry. Can I get you some aspirin or something?"

Affected by her proximity, he pushed his chair back abruptly. "I don't want anything... I just need some space!"

He was aware of her wounded stare as he walked away, but made himself keep going. He heard the characteristic sliding sound of the gateway Al used in the Imaging Chamber as Al fell into step beside him.

"What happened, Sam?" Al asked, glancing back to where Catherine still sat. "Is she mad at you?"

Sam shook his head sadly. "I don't think so, Al. She's just hurt, and worried about me. This isn't working."

"It has to!" Al insisted. "Vincent..."

"Look, Al, I don't want to hear any more about Vincent, okay?" Sam rounded on his friend in frustration. "I've got to figure out some way to separate Catherine and Steven for her sake, not anybody else's."

"Okay, Sam, okay! Keep your shirt on!" Al said placatingly. "I'm just trying to help!"

Somehow, Sam made it through the rest of the afternoon. Catherine caught up with him outside Steven's last class, smiling at him uncertainly. "Ready to go home?" she inquired.

Her expression was vulnerable and Sam couldn't bring himself to rebuff her. "Okay," he agreed quietly, and followed her to the street, where she hailed a cab. Taking his cue from her, he was silent on the long drive to the SoHo apartment she shared with Steven.

Inside, she reminded him of their plans to dine with her father, and he rummaged through Steven's half of the small closet, pulling out a dress shirt and tie. He was just wondering if he should make a strategic retreat to the bathroom to change and allow Catherine some privacy to do the same when she spoke.

"Is this okay?" She held a dressy, mustard-colored blouse under her chin for his inspection.

Behind him, Al offered his two cents. "No, Sam, tell her no! She should never wear that color! It makes her skin sallow and washes out her eyes..."

Sam resisted the urge to give Al an incredulous stare; where did he get off giving fashion advice? But he had a point -- Catherine had looked much prettier in the blue sweater she'd been wearing earlier.

"Steven!" She was growing impatient. "Is it okay?"

"Uh, no, Cath. I don't like that color on you. It doesn't look good." He reached past her, pulling an emerald silk blouse from her closet. "Here, wear this..." His voice drifted away as he recognized indignation flaring in her eyes. "That's it," he murmured aloud.

"What's it?" Catherine and Al asked, simultaneously. Catherine's voice had an edge that Sam welcomed.

"Nothing," he told her. "I'm talking to myself." Turning, he tucked his chin into his chest and whispered, "Al!"

"Right here, Sam," Al answered. "What's it?"

"She doesn't like being told what to do," Sam whispered. "That's the key."

Al looked doubtful. "I don't know, Sam. I always say the man should wear the pants in any relationship!"

"Yeah, and none of your relationships last very long, either," Sam pointed out dryly.

"Yeah, well..." Al busied himself pushing buttons on his com-link. "Ziggy says it might work. Then again, it might not."

"What does Dr. Beeks say?"

"I don't know. Gushi!" Sam winced as Al shouted in his ear. "Find Dr. Beeks!" As Sam watched, he stepped back through the gate and closed it.

"Steven, are you all right?" Catherine stood behind him, watching warily.

"I'm fine!" Sam burst out. "Okay? Stop asking!"

Hurt, she retreated a step. "I'm sorry. I just..."

Sam bit down on his instinctive apology. "You'd better hurry and get dressed," he said instead. "We'll be late."

Turning his back, he changed quickly; when he looked at Catherine again, it was to find that she had ignored the blouse he'd chosen, exchanging the mustard blouse for one in bright pink and was just finishing doing up the buttons. Her glance held just a hint of defiance before she looked away.

Sam turned his head so she couldn't see his smile; he had undeniably hit a nerve and it encouraged him despite Al's doubts. He just needed to keep pushing.

A cab took them to a quiet restaurant where Catherine's father waited. After hugging his daughter, he greeted Sam with cool cordiality, and Sam couldn't help thinking that Charles Chandler didn't quite approve of his daughter's fiancé.

Good, he thought as the maitre d' led them to a table. A hidden ally.

His first opportunity to be overbearing came quickly.

"A rum and Coke, please." She smiled at her father. "It's been a long day," she explained.

Sam picked up the cue. "Should you, Cath?" he inquired solicitously. "Maybe just some wine would be better."

It worked. She shot him an irritated look, which he returned with one of innocence.

When the waiter came to take their order, she asked for a steak, and Sam intervened again.

"Are you sure?" he asked, careful to sound concerned. "You had a hamburger for lunch, and too much red meat isn't good for you." Fleetingly, it occurred to him to wonder if they were worried about cholesterol back in the early eighties, but it really didn't matter, because she was already bristling.

"I like steak," she answered through clenched teeth. During dinner, the talk turned to Charles Chandler's corporate law firm. "You know, your office will be waiting when you graduate," he told his daughter fondly.

"I know, Dad," she replied. "You've been telling me that since I was fifteen." Looking down, she poked at the baked potato, swimming in sour cream and butter. "I was thinking I might like to take some time off after graduation."

Her father momentarily looked taken aback, and Sam leaped in. "Is that such a good idea, Cath? I mean, your dad's counting on you to help him out..."

If looks could kill, Sam would be a dead man, and Charles hurried to fill the breach. "That's all right, Steven. If Cathy thinks she needs some time off, we can get along without her a little longer." He gave her an indulgent smile before turning back to Sam.

"How about you, Steven? Have you given any more thought to joining us?"

This was unexpected and Sam wallowed uncertainly. "Uh, no, sir," he stammered. "I guess not." Remembering Catherine's earlier comments about Steven's not getting through law school if he didn't study, he added, "I'm just thinking about making it to graduation right now."

Charles nodded, and the conversation turned to other things. When the dessert cart came around, Catherine fixed Sam with a fierce stare, daring him to challenge her, and he subsided without saying anything. He didn't want her to kill Steven, just not marry him.

Al showed up during the frigid cab ride home. "Hey, Sam, how's it going?"

Sam slid his eyes sideways, indicating Catherine, who sat rigidly on her own side of the seat, and gave a tiny shrug.

"Oho," Al observed, bending for a better look at her face. "Way to go, Sam, what did you do to her?"

Sam shrugged again. To anyone but Al, it would be evident he couldn't speak.

"I've got to stick around for this," Al went on, oblivious. "There might be bloodshed." He seemed intrigued, rather than alarmed, at the idea.

He was waiting in the apartment when Sam and Catherine got there and wasn't disappointed. The door was scarcely closed behind them when Catherine rounded on Sam.

"Don't you ever do that to me again," she snapped angrily. "Not in front of my father."

Not in front of her father. Did that mean that it was okay to criticize her in private? Sam wondered. "I'm sorry, Cath," he began, trying not to sound too contrite. "I just want what's best for you. You know that."

She was not to be placated. "Don't patronize me! The only one who knows what's best for me is me!" she retorted. Whirling, she stalked into the bathroom, and slammed the door.

"Boy, I don't know what you did to her, Sam, but it's sure working!" Al said admiringly. "I haven't seen a woman that mad since my fourth wife..." He paused, counting on his fingers. "Yeah, fourth wife caught me out with this dynamite redhead..."

"Never mind that, Al," Sam said. "Is it enough? Did I change it?"

Recalled from his memories, Al poked at his hand link. "Hmmm. Ziggy says not yet. Buthe's run your course of action through all his psychology programs and thinks you're on the right track. Keep it up, Sam."

"Okay."

Catherine emerged from the bathroom dressed for bed and went wordlessly to the couch and began to pull it out for sleeping. When Sam moved to assist, she accepted his help in icy silence, and when the bed was folded out, she crawled in and closed her eyes.

"Well," Al said, grinning, "at least you can sleep safely tonight, Sam."

Looking at Catherine, curled rigidly on her own side of the bed, Sam had to agree. If nothing else, at least he could get a good night's sleep.

In the bathroom, he brushed his teeth, pondering briefly over one of the worst parts about leaping &emdash; using someone else's toothbrush. It didn't matter that the toothbrush belonged to the person Sam was simulating; to him, it was still someone else's.

Once ready for bed, he went back into the other room, where Catherine appeared to be asleep. He felt her stiffen when he eased into bed beside her, and knew she was only pretending. He sighed, wishing there was an easier way to do this.

The portal to the Imaging Chamber scraped open beside him, and Al stepped through already talking.

"Listen, Sam, Dr. Beeks thinks she has this figured out. It doesn't make much sense to me, but she says that you should make a move on her, now!"

Incredulous, Sam pushed himself up on an elbow. "What?" he hissed.

"I know, I know, but Dr. Beeks swears it will work! Something about making it apparent that Steven is only concerned with meeting his own needs, not Catherine's." Al shrugged his ignorance. "I don't get it, Sam, but maybe you ought to try it."

Rolling over, Sam looked at Catherine's tense shoulders and considered. It did have a certain kind of logic. Hesitantly, he reached out and ran his hand up and down Catherine's bare arm.

"Cath?" he whispered, trying to sound amorous.

"What?"

Either his message wasn't coming through, or she wasn't interested.

"Dr. Beeks says don't apologize for anything you did earlier, Sam," Al coached.

Sam moved closer and dared to kiss her shoulder. "Come on, Cath," he coaxed, hoping this wouldn't backfire. "Let's make up."

"Steven, take your hands off me," she said frigidly, shrugging away from his touch.

"Keep after her, Sam!" Al encouraged.

Sam replaced his hand. "Come on, Cath..."

"Tell her you know she wants it," Al shouted.

"You know you want..." Sam repeated without thought.

She didn't give him time to finish, as her temper snapped and she rolled to face him. "No. I said no! Damn it, Steven, I am sick and tired of everything having to be your way! I am..."

She was clearly furious, punctuating each word with a sharp jab to his chest. In the background, Sam could hear Al exulting. "You did it, Sam! You fixed it! You saved little Albert!"

Sam barely had time to wonder what Steven would think about the tirade Catherine was delivering with enthusiasm when he leaped...

 

THE END