Sam Altair didn’t believe in life after death, but even as Casey Andrews’ flower-lined casket inched lower into the ground, he knew that she would never release her hold on him. He had known the old lady for only five years, yet his wire-rimmed glasses had fogged several times as he stood behind her family at the gravesite. Was he crying for himself, or for the older version of Sam Altair who had stolen Casey from an alternate timeline when she was just twenty years old?
The present Sam Altair stood at the gravesite, the thirty-one-year-old inheritor of a lifetime of someone else’s sins. He was surrounded by Casey’s children and grandchildren, along with a plethora of grand-nephews and -nieces. A wail from the side reminded him there were also a couple of great-grandchildren. The woman had become a matriarch.
The seventy years since her abrupt move backwards through time had brought her love and family and friends, something that he suspected would have happened to her no matter where she was. Casey Wilson Andrews had been that kind of person. He had grown to love her, too.
Her last request burdened him. He doubted that she had asked anything of anyone else, other than to live in peace and happiness. But Sam Altair had debts to pay and Casey had not been reluctant to demand he cover them.
Even though he wasn’t that Sam Altair.
The casket rested at the bottom, and Casey’s daughter, a pixie-like woman with short white hair, stepped forward, her black skirt and blouse flowing like water along her thin body. She tossed a single daisy, Casey’s favorite flower, onto the casket. Her gesture released the others, who moved to toss their own offerings into the grave. Casey had often said she wished to die in the spring, when the flowers were blooming, so they could do this very thing. She wanted flowers in her grave. It was true, somehow, that Casey usually got what she wanted.
When they were all finished, a few of them looked to him and he stepped forward to place his own offering, an acorn from the oak tree that grew in the Belfast Botanic Gardens. The tree had come back in time with Casey and Sam in 1906, the result of a time travel experiment gone haywire. Casey would have laughed in delight if she’d known he was going to do this. Sam rather hoped the oak would take hold in this place. He could think of no greater legacy for her.
The graveyard workers began to fill in the hole, and Sam’s gaze wandered to the waiting headstone. Like all the others in this part of the church’s graveyard, it was dignified and simple, but with a message chosen years ago by her husband:
Casey Ashley Wilson Andrews
May 16, 1885 – June 4, 1977
Beloved Wife of Thomas Andrews of Dunallon
and Mother of His Children
“The Reason I Lived”
Of course, she had been born in 1985, not 1885, and the truth behind the quote was a story known only to three of the people here. And to any in the future, who might have access to the time travel journals.
At the entrance to the graveyard, Sam caught up with Casey’s granddaughter, Sarah. The early summer day was bright, and the green hills of Comber wandered away to the blue sparkle of Strangford Lough. The moment might have been awkward, but Sarah favored Sam with a mischievous glance.
“The flowers are bloomin’ everywhere,” she said. “Just like she requested.”
His lips twitched as he noted the blanket of color covering the hills. “Casey’s inside track,” he said, and Sarah laughed.
“Atheists aren’t supposed to have inside tracks,” she told him and he had to smile, because she had leaned close to whisper it. He hoped she did that because she wanted to be close to him and not just to keep Casey’s well-known secret from being heard by other family members. Her chin jerked back to the graveyard. “Not going to pay your respects to … you know?”
Sam shuddered and linked his arm through hers to guide her to the car. “I’ll pass.” In truth, he’d never once stopped by the grave of the first Sam Altair. He knew, that as Casey’s guardian-of-record, the man had earned a spot on the edge of the section devoted to the Andrews family. There was just something indefinably creepy about it though, and Sam couldn’t bring himself to visit.
Besides, Sarah was here. There was no time to waste.
“It’s good to see you again, Sarah.” Ah. That was original.
But she smiled. “I missed you too, Sam.” She leaned against her car, hands in the pockets of her cardigan, the breeze blowing strands of her chestnut hair across her nose. She regarded him with a tincture of amusement. Her eyes were as green as her grandmother’s had been.
He returned her smile. “How long can you stay?”
“Hopefully, several years.”
“What? What do you mean?”
She shrugged. “I could stay in Galway and work at SpaceSystems for the rest of my life. But I thought I’d see about the family business.”
Harland & Wolff Shipyards. Not officially the family business, but there’d been an Andrews or close relative at the helm practically since its inception. Sarah was the latest in the Andrews line of shipbuilders that had started with her grandfather. When he was Sarah’s age, Thomas Andrews was building the grand ocean liners of the early twentieth century. Sarah built spaceships, but Harland & Wolff had expanded to include the new mode of travel.
Sam didn’t bother to question his heart’s rapid beating. He wanted her to stay. He gripped her shoulders. “No sense letting all that talent going to the competition.” He kept his words light, but his smile would have made the flowers grow.
She bit her lip, examining his face with a trace of uncertainty, but made no effort to move out of his grip. “I want to be home,” she said. “I hope we can get … reacquainted.”
Now, there was a word fraught with meanings. Sam was all set to explore some of them, but the presence of so many family members hindered him. That, and an approaching voice pitched to brook no nonsense.
“Sarah, me love. You’ll be takin’ a load of the wee ones in your car. Can you fit five of ’em?”
Sam dropped his hands from her shoulders, though not before a final squeeze. He turned as Sarah stepped out to face her father, Casey’s third and youngest child, as he approached with a line of children trailing behind him.
“I only have seat belts for four, Da’,” she said. “As ye know.”
Tommy Andrews shrugged. “It’s just to Ardara. You can squeeze ’em in.”
The children didn’t seem to mind, although there was yelling for “shotgun” as they scrambled in, the little car bouncing with their efforts. Sarah nabbed a collar and pulled one out. “Ye can go with Sam there, Jeffrey. I drove this thing from Galway and it’s needin’ tires. No seat belt, no ride.”
Sam was more amenable to this than Jeffrey, although the reminder that it was “just to Ardara,” a drive of less than five minutes, provided one didn’t run into a flock of sheep crossing the road, placated him enough. Jeffrey managed to convince a cousin to come along. With the boys safely belted in and making loud scatological noises in mimicry of his car, Sam endured the ride to the Andrews ancestral home on the banks of the lough.
The commotion in the house and yard was in inverse proportion to the solemnity of the funeral. A large group had already assembled out back, past the rose bushes, to continue the ongoing intra-family football match: Montgomerys versus the Andrews, currently two-up for the Montgomerys.
“Sure to be put right, now that Sarah’s back,” Sam heard as he approached the field, and Sarah’s loud protests were roundly ignored as she was pulled into position and the ball was off. Sam watched, amused and frustrated. But honestly, there’d be no way he’d get to talk to her, anyway. Not today.
This would be all right if he could play too, but the family competition was a serious thing. “Only blood allowed” was the rule, and not even Sarah’s brother-in-law, a defender for Ipswich, could play in this game. So instead, Sam kept score, joining in the general observation that poor Sarah had not managed to make too much of a difference.
His laboratory at Dunallon was dark, and Sam didn’t bother with lights when he entered later that night. He sat on the nearest stool and sighed, removing his tie with relief. The stillness reached into him as he sat, his thoughts lazy and jumbled. He wanted to think about Sarah, but Casey kept intruding, her bright green eyes laughing at him from a wrinkled face. Her eyes had been bright practically until the moment she died. Such a funny old lady. He’d had no experience with old women before being summoned to her presence five years ago, and he was surprised as she became a friend and confidant. She was close to ninety when he met her, yet her frail body housed a sharp wit and a sense of humor honed from decades of exposure to her husband and his brothers. She offered him a career and a nearly endless supply of funding, as well as the chance to work with one of the most respected physicists of their age, her son, Jamie. Dr. James Andrews had been trained at the knee of the original Sam Altair. He had learned early that time travel was possible, and that he and his family were living in the resulting universe of an experiment gone awry.
A universe they were determined to make a good one.
Sam wiped a tear from his cheek. Damn, I’m going to miss her.
“I’ll miss her, too,” a voice said, and Sam started, turning to the door. Sarah stood outlined in the light of the hallway lamp. Sam gasped out an embarrassed laugh and reached for a Kim-wipe. “What are you doing, here? Aren’t you staying at home?”
She rolled her eyes and stepped into the room, letting the door close behind her. Before it shut, he heard voices in the background. Jamie and Alicia were home, as well. He suspected they’d brought a gaggle of out-of-town relatives to stay. Not even Ardara House could hold the entire clan, anymore.
“I am, of course. Mum won’t have it any other way, you know,” Sarah said. She stood before him for a moment, a looming shape against the darkness. He heard her grab a stool and drag it closer. “Lights, dim,” she commanded, and even at that strength, he blinked against the brightness.
She grinned. “You’re such a sentimental slob, Sam. Sitting in the dark, crying over my grandmother.”
He laughed and tossed the Kim-wipe into a receptacle. “And she’s deservin’ of it, lass. She was my friend, in spite of all the ways I was a disappointment to her.” He smiled at the countertop, shaking his head a little.
Sarah snorted. “In what ways are you thinkin’ you were a disappointment? She never mentioned any.”
He shrugged. “Subtle things, I guess. I wasn’t ‘her’ Sam, after all. When she met him, he had thirty-five years of physics research behind him; I was a wet-behind-the-ears postgrad. Time travel was just an amusing, not-very-possible side effect of my hypothesis. I’d never even given it serious consideration. And she wanted me to read his journals and be ready to jump universes in just a few years.”
“And here you are, five years later, ready to start building a prototype,” Sarah said. “I don’t think she was disappointed.”
He lifted his shoulders in mute acknowledgement, then blinked, staring at her in surprise.
She looked over her shoulder in confusion, then back at him. “What?”
“Who told you we’re ready to build a prototype?” Silly question. There was only one person who could have, but why … ?
She propped her elbow on the counter and rested her head on her upraised arm, smiling at him. “Uncle Jamie had a chat with me after you left the funeral. That’s why I came over before going home. To talk to you. He offered me a job.”
Sam gaped, horrified and hopeful all at once. “He did? What job? He never mentioned he was going to do that.”
“He didn’t know I was planning on moving back to Belfast. He said you need an engineer.”
“Yes, but Sarah … ” Sam snapped his mouth closed, not at all sure what to say to her.
Her face darkened. “You don’t want me to work for the consortium?”
The cold in her voice chilled him and he reached to touch her face. She jerked away, but just a little. His finger brushed her cheek. When she didn’t move again, he stroked upward along her cheekbone, then cupped his hand behind her neck. “I would be ecstatic to work with you every day,” he whispered. Her eyes filled with tears, but she didn’t say anything. “And honored,” he continued in a firmer voice. “We’d be fortunate to have you. But if you work on our project, what about your career? You won’t be building spaceships. I’m concerned it will be a setback for you.”
She squeezed his hand and stood up, moving away from him. He watched her, desire licking him with flame. I shouldn’t have touched her.
She leaned against the wall, arms folded, and regarded him thoughtfully. “Obviously,” she said slowly, as if thinking it through, “if I spend the next few years building your time machine and other equipment, I won’t be building spaceships. I’ll be years out of the loop. Yeah, I suppose it would hurt my career, if I went back to spaceships. But you tell me, why would I do that?”
“Go back?” Sam glanced around the lab. “Where do you see my work going in a few years, Sarah? Even if we’re successful, I frankly cannot figure out a use for time travel. I suspect it will be more trouble than it’s worth. And infinitely more dangerous.”
“Nonsense. You don’t get to call limitations on any scientific discovery. There are always applications that the discoverer never thinks of.”
“You love building spaceships,” he said, his tone just shy of malicious. He desperately wanted her to say yes, but he wanted her to be sure. “You’ve planned on doing it since you used to follow your grandfather to work when you were just a kid.”
“That was before anyone told me the big family secret.” Her hands dropped to fists at her sides. “Back when I thought my choices were to build those grand ships I saw growing at the Yard, or sit at a desk like Uncle Jamie, fiddling with equations all day.” She raised her hands, palms up, fingers outstretched—delicate hands that belied the strength in them. “I wanted to build, to feel the shape and texture of things under my fingers, to see real results from my work.” She stared at him, her eyes wide. “But then you told me what you were doing. You let me see the journals. And my whole world changed, Sam.”
The tears in her voice brought an ache to his own throat. He’d been so caught up in her after they made love the first—the only—time, he had lost all perspective. Perhaps it was sweet talk when he said how glad he was her grandfather hadn’t died before her father was born. He certainly had not thought it through, and when she began asking questions, in that teasing, gentle way of new lovers, he could not lie to her.
Even now, over a year later, he closed his eyes in pain at the memory. Sarah was devastated at the story, and had gone straight to her grandmother and Uncle Jamie, demanding they tell her the truth. She took off for Galway two days later without another word to Sam. Casey had been furious. More than furious. It was the one term she’d set for Sam. He must never involve her family. Jamie alone knew of it, because he’d grown up with the original Sam as his surrogate grandfather. From the time he could walk and talk, Jamie had followed the elderly scientist around, soaked up every word the old man uttered, and brought to pass every plan the old man made. Jamie had stepped up to carry the work forward until Sam himself was born and grew up to become a physicist.
Sarah was suddenly in front of him, pulling him out of the memory, her hands holding his head as she bent to kiss him. Her tears were just under the sweet, familiar taste of her, her lips passionate and warm. His hands covered her back, pulling her tight against him, the counter keeping them both upright. He lost track of time, of everything except the overwhelming feel of her, but eventually she pulled back, turned sideways, and sat gingerly on his lap.
She rested her cheek on the top of his head, her arms around his shoulders, as he held her.
“I’ve never stopped loving you, Sam,” she whispered. “I hated you for a while, ’tis true. But I never stopped loving you.”
He tightened his hold on her, more aware than he had ever been, just how precious she was to him. He tried to speak, but his voice wouldn’t work, even after he cleared his throat. And surely, she was waiting to hear him say he loved her, too. What would she think if he said nothing? Panic rose, he couldn’t breathe. She sat up, peering into his face, her expression closed and guarded. Then she smiled and he felt like the sun came out. “You’re a sentimental slob Sam,” she said, just as she had earlier, and he found his voice.
“Do you have any idea what I’ve been through this last year? Thinking you hated me forever, and wasn’t it just what I deserved? Seeing you today … ah love,” he pressed his forehead to hers. “Tell me you forgive me, Sarah. That you’ll let me make it up to you, if I can ever do that. Tell me I can love you again, and you won’t turn away from me.”
She kissed him again, slowly. He’d never really been kissed before, he realized. All others had just been teasers, leading up to this one.
“There’s nothing to forgive, my love,” she said, her lips moving lightly on his. “You meant no malice by telling me. And in the end, my family means more to me than ever, because I know these things.”
Sometime later, she spoke again, her voice content and languid. “So do I have the job?”