"The Assignment to Help An Orphan"
A Quantum Leap/Highway to Heaven Crossover Story By Lal Soong
By Lal Soong
As Sam Beckett leaped into his next host's body, he felt a chill run through him. Wherever he was, the temperature was nearing the zero mark. The wind gusted into his face and the snow iced his hair.
He was standing in front of the door of a two-story building beside a tall, thin man with dark brown hair, who wore no more than a leather jacket despite the blizzard that surrounded them.
The man smiled warmly, then nodded at Sam as though oblivious to his surroundings.
"The Boss told me to expect you," the man said. "I think you're going to like this assignment, Sam."
"The boss?" Sam asked through numb lips. Confused that the man beside him knew his name, Beckett began patting himself on the face and arms as though he could sense whether he was actually himself or not. It was hard to tell through his bulky gloves, though. Does he really know who I am? Or have I leaped into someone with the same name?
The man turned away from the time traveler, and knocked on the door. A minute later a woman in her thirties with blond hair slightly longer than shoulder-length answered. She looked haggard like a woman who hadn't slept much lately.
"Yes, can I help you?" she asked, holding the door only as far as the bolted chain would permit.
Embarrassed, Sam stopped slapping his arms as soon as he realized she was watching him.
"My name's Jonathan Smith," the man replied. "And this is my friend, Mark Gordon."
Now he's calling me Mark, Sam thought. Who is this guy?
"Is something the matter?" the woman asked looking at Sam with confusion. Her grip seemed to tighten on the door as if she were preparing to close it.
"I'm afraid my friend's just a little cold," Jonathan replied. "We're here about the ad you placed for janitors."
"Oh yes, of course." The woman grew noticeably relaxed, unlatched the door, then opened it fully. "Why don't you come inside where it's warm?"
Sam preceded Jonathan inside and spotted the reflection of a tall, overweight man with a greying beard in a mirror just around the corner.
They stomped their feet on the thick rug. Sam removed his gloves and rubbed his hands together, trying to get his circulation going again.
"My name's Lori McKensie," the woman said, offering her hand out first to Sam, then to Jonathan for a handshake, each of them accepting her grasp. "Your hands aren't even cold!" she exclaimed after releasing Jonathan's hand.
"That's what pockets are for," Smith replied.
"But the wind chill outside is below zero."
"Well, I keep the car pretty warm, and I was only outside
for a minute."
Lori smiled, though her eyes revealed the oddity still perplexed her. "Would you like to go into the kitchen and have some coffee or cocoa?"
"Coffee would be nice," Jonathan replied, and Lori led them into the kitchen.
A tall, black woman stood at the sink washing dishes. She turned around, plate in hand, to smile at the new arrivals.
"This is Ruth," Lori said, introducing the other woman. "Ruth, this is Jonathan Smith and Mark Gordon. They've come about the janitorial positions."
"Nice to meet you," Ruth said before returning to work.
Lori opened a cupboard and removed three thick mugs. "Would you like cream or sugar?" she asked as she poured their coffee.
"Black will be fine," Sam answered, not looking away from Jonathan. He needed to find a way to be alone with this man, so he could ask him what was going on.
"Same here," Jonathan agreed.
"Have you done janitorial work before?" Lori asked as she carried all three mugs awkwardly to the table.
"Yes, we have," Jonathan replied. He took his coffee cup, then reached inside his jacket to pull out a paper from his inside pocket. "You'll find all our references in order."
Lori handed Sam his coffee, then took the paper from Jonathan, unfolded it, and browsed over the references.
Sam took a sip of the hot coffee, welcoming it down his throat as it began to warm the frigid body he occupied.
"Excellent," Lori said as she refolded the paper. "We have thirty-two orphans here. There's eight children's bedrooms, seven of them occupied with five beds in each-"
"But that's thirty-five," Sam interrupted.
"Well, three of them are unused. Anyway, I want you to vacuum and dust each room twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. The children spend most of their time in the living room, so it'll need to be straightened up and vacuumed daily, except Sundays. You'll have that day off. There will be plenty of yard work and errands to keep you busy. At this time of year, you'll have to shovel the driveway almost everyday. This is an old building, so you'll also be doing repairs on a regular basis. Any questions?"
"You mean we got the job?" Sam asked.
"Yes, and if it's convenient for you, I'd like to ask you to start immediately. Ruth and I have been taking the burden, but it's been difficult trying to keep up with everything. We could really use the help."
"That's no problem," Jonathan replied.
Lori smiled. "Great. As I stated in the ad, the job includes room and board, so I'll allow you a day to gather your things before you begin."
"That won't be necessary. Our luggage is already packed and in the trunk of our car."
"Really? Either you have a lot of confidence or-"
"We have confidence," Jonathan interrupted.
"Well, after you're settled into your room, then I'll introduce you to the children."
After finishing his coffee, Sam followed Jonathan outside to a Ford LTD. Jonathan unlocked the trunk, removed two suitcases, handed one to Sam, then closed the trunk.
"I don't understand," the time traveler said as he accepted the heavy bag. "Before Lori McKensie opened the door, you called me Sam. How do you know who I am when I don't even look like myself?"
"Let's get settled in first, then I'll explain."
Jonathan smiled reassurance and led the way back into the orphanage.
After Jonathan and Sam reentered the building, Lori led them through a hall and into a bedroom with two beds and an adjacent bathroom. A twelve-inch color television was setting atop the dresser along with a small portable radio.
"I'll give you two a while to get settled," Lori said. "Then you can meet the children before dinner." She smiled and closed the door behind her as she left their room.
Setting his suitcase on one of the beds, Jonathan turned to face Sam. Smith was wearing a smile as if telling the time traveler that he understood his confusion.
"Sam, I know your name, because I'm an angel," he said. "You've leaped into the body of my partner, Mark Gordon."
"Oh boy!" Sam found himself staggering back onto the bed behind him, suddenly feeling too dizzy to stand. He had been surprised by many things since he first used project Quantum Leap, but he never expected this one. He couldn't tell if Jonathan was nuts or completely rational. He hoped for the former, because if Jonathan were truly an angel then that could mean that Mark was also...dead. "Is Mark an angel too?"
"Oh no. He's still alive."
"I don't understand. Why would an angel need my help?"
"I'm not God. Mark has been helping me for over four years now, and I can't tell you how lonely I was before he offered to join me. The Boss decided to bring you in on this assignment to help guide Al."
Sam noticed Jonathan looking up when he said The Boss and assumed he meant God.
"Guide Al?" Sam asked. He wasn't sure he liked the sound of that. Hadn't he and Al been doing just fine right along before this angel showed up?
"HE's informed me that you've been having difficulties lately because of Al."
"I realize that God is running the show. Al and I have done everything HE wanted. We do...Al does the best he can!" Sam protested, standing up. "Doesn't The Boss appreciate all that we've done?"
"HE only wants to help you."
"Well, HE has a funny way of showing it. If HE really wanted to help Al and me, HE'd send me back home."
"But doesn't it make you feel good when you help someone?"
"When is it going to be my turn to get help? I've got a life somewhere in the future that I can't even remember, because Quantum Leaping turned my brain into swiss cheese. I knew that I was taking a chance when I started the project, but only HE can get me out of it. Haven't I done enough?"
"I wish I could help you," Jonathan replied. "But The Boss doesn't feel that it's time for HIM to send you back home yet."
Sam shook his head in disgust before returning his gaze to Jonathan.
"Are you really an angel?"
"Okay. Prove it! Tell me why we're here."
"We're here, in Minnesota, to help Lori McKensie save her orphanage from being shut down. If the orphanage were to be closed, the children would be forced to live in a larger, less personal institution in Minneapolis."
"What year is it?"
"Today is January 5th, 1990."
This angel seems to know an awful lot about what we're doing here, Sam thought. I wonder if he knows everything that's going on back in 1999 as well. That would give new meaning to the word "eternity".
Sam heard the familiar swishing sound that signaled Al's arrival and turned around to look for his friend.
"Hello, Al," Jonathan said, smiling.
"You can see-" The cigar nearly dropped from Al's mouth before he caught it with his hand. "Sam, he cansee me."
"I know that, Al," Sam replied. "He's an angel."
"You mean like in-" Al looked toward the ceiling. "Oh boy." Sam could see sweat beading on the older man's forehead. Al tried to cover up his uneasiness by punching buttons on his hand link to Ziggy. "Well, you're inside a-"
"Minnesota orphanage," Sam interrupted.
"Yes. And the date is-"
"January 5th, 1990."
Al gave Sam a flustered look but continued. "You're here to help-"
"Do you know why you're supposed to help her?" Al asked, yelling.
"Al, why are you raising your voice to me? Come to think of it, you've been acting peculiar for quite some-" Sam stopped in mid-sentence, suddenly realizing that what he was saying confirmed what the angel had just told him.
"I'm sorry, Sam," Al replied in a low voice. "I just thought you needed me, but somehow you seem to know everything before I even got here." He glanced nervously at Jonathan.
"Why don't you tell me why I'm here."
"Well, okay." The hologram punched a few buttons on the hand link, then whacked it twice before it cooperated. "You're here to see that the Marshall County orphanage isn't closed down at the end of the month."
"That's right," Sam said. "Because if it's closed down, the children will be forced to move into a larger orphanage in Minneapolis."
"How did you figure this all out so fast? You haven't been here even an hour yet."
"I'm afraid I told him," Jonathan replied. "Being an angel has its advantages. I get my information directly from The Boss."
"The Almighty, Al," Sam explained. "So who's trying to close the orphanage down?"
Obviously agitated, Al gave the angel another fleeting glance, then began punching buttons on the hand link. Before Ziggy could give him the answer, Jonathan was already answering the question.
"A man named Greg Halsey," Jonathan replied. "He's a health inspector, with the opinion that this orphanage is too rundown to be safe for the children."
"Hey, I was supposed to answer that!" Al exclaimed.
"But is he right?" Sam asked. Sam could see the frustration on Al's face and hated having to ask his buddy that.
"Look around," Jonathan butted in once again. "I'm afraid this place needs thousands of dollars worth of repairs. Lori's been trying to do a little of it at a time, hoping that Greg Halsey will get off her back long enough for her to make enough repairs to satisfy a health inspection. But she simply doesn't receive enough government funding to ever have any real hope of finishing the repairs."
"Okay, okay. So you're here to repair everything," Al said, waving his cigar around. "Sam, get to work, so we can get the Hell out of here."
"I'm afraid it's not that simple," the angel said. "The Boss hasn't told me yet just how we're supposed to solve Lori's problem, but I don't think we could repair everything. First, we don't have the supplies or the money, and second, a storm is just starting that will probably turn into a blizzard by tomorrow. Minnesota is famous for them."
"Then how are we supposed to help Lori?" Sam asked.
"I don't know yet."
"I thought you had all the answers," Al said, "seeing as how you're the one who has a direct link to The Boss."
"Look I don't have all the-"
Lori knocked on the open door.
"Hey you two," she said. "What's going on?"
"Great," Al said. "Now let's see the angel explain his way out of this one."
Jonathan gave the hologram a cursory glance before answering Lori. "We were arguing over drawer space. Mark thinks I've taken up more than my share."
"Did you think to check the closet?" She walked over to the closet, slid one of the doors aside, revealing several shelves. "There's plenty of storage room for two people. Okay?" Lori had a smirk on her face, having obviously dealt with silly arguments before. "Are we ready to move on to something else?"
"Like figuring out who's in charge of information," Al chimed in.
"Like meeting the children. They're in the living room waiting for you right now." She paused for a reply that didn't come.
Sam could feel the tension in the room as though it was holding his tongue.
"Are you ready to meet them?" Lori reiterated.
"Yes," Jonathan replied and followed the woman out the door.
"Al, are you coming?" Sam asked after Lori was out of hearing range.
"I don't know, Sam," the hologram replied, looking a bit ashen. "I don't know if I can stand to look all those orphans in the eye. And that angel! If I weren't a hologram-"
"I agree with you, buddy, but if we don't go out there and confront the problem, we're certainly not going to resolve it. I know the orphanage reminds you of your childhood, but don't you know that you could talk to the kids who can see you and reassure them that everything will be okay. This could be a leap that you could really help me with."
"Yeah, if that angel quits butting in."
"He won't, not out in the living room in front of Lori and all the children. See, that's one advantage you have on him. You can tell me something without everyone hearing you."
"I still don't know, Sam. I'm not sure I can take this orphanage so soon after-"
Suddenly, Sam understood why Al had been irritable during the last few leaps. He wondered why Al hadn't told him before today about the trouble he was having dealing with an assignment that almost went sour. Nearly three months ago, the time traveler had leaped into a housekeeper and had been unable to prevent the death of the couple he was working for. It was then that they realized that Sam wasn't there to prevent the couple's son from becoming an orphan, but to stop the boy from committing suicide. Al had nearly lost his dependability and had barely warned Sam in time to save Billy.
"Are you talking about Billy?" Sam asked "Al, that leap was nearly three months ago." Is Jonathan right about Al needing guidance, he wondered. Why would HE even allow Al to get into this situation in the first place?
Al sighed heavily. "All right. Maybe I'll go with you then."
Sam went into the living room with the hologram following closely behind.
The living room was about twenty by thirty feet with two couches, a love seat, and four arm chairs, all well-worn, furnishing the room. All thirty-two of the children were sitting on the floor Indian style, the smallest in front.
"I was beginning to think you'd gotten lost," Lori said, turning toward Sam. "Children, this is Jonathan Smith and Mark Gordon. They're going to be the new janitors, so can you give them a warm welcome?"
"Welcome Mr. Smith and Mr. Gordon," the children said together.
"But there's three of them, Miss McKensie," a little girl in the front row said, pointing toward Al.
Lori glanced over her shoulder to the spot where the hologram was standing.
"Melanie," she said. "There's no one else here."
"Yes, there is!" two other children exclaimed.
"Sam, I can't take this," Al said, wiping sweat from his brow. "I got to go. Besides, you got the angel to help you with this one."
Sam looked toward his friend and almost spoke before he realized everyone else would hear him as well and think him crazy.
I'm sorry you're under so much pressure, buddy, Sam thought as Al pushed a button on the hand link and disappeared. He wondered why The Boss kept torturing Al so much. Al had spent five years as a POW in Vietnam, never knowing if he was going to live or die from one day to the next. Then there was the time when Al had to face losing his first wife, Beth, the only woman he had ever really loved, for the second time. Just recently, Al was reminded of the day he learned he was an orphan by witnessing Billy's anguish. And now he had to deal with an angel taking his place. What kind of God allowed this much pain to be inflicted on one person?
"Children, I want you to all line up, the littlest ones first, and walk single file into the dining room," Lori said.
"Ruth has cooked up something special for dinner tonight."
The children did as they were told, following Lori down the hall and into the dining room.
Sam started to follow them when Jonathan spoke to him.
"He'll be back," the angel said.
Sam turned around. "How can you be sure?"
Jonathan looked up. "Oh, because HE told me."
The man and the angel followed the same path that the children had taken only a moment ago and found their way into the dinning room.
The children were seated at four big tables with eight chairs each. A fifth table had four seats, obviously meant for the adults. A long counter divided the dining room from the kitchen. Ruth and Lori were busy passing out plates of food to the children. Jonathan and Sam walked up to Lori, who had returned to the kitchen to fill more plates with lasagna.
"Would you like some help with that?" Jonathan asked.
"I sure would," Lori replied and handed Jonathan two plates, then two to Sam. She picked up two more and followed Jonathan and Sam to one of the tables. "I know lasagna's an extra we really can't afford, because cheese is so expensive, but every once in a while we have to give the kids something special."
"To make them feel like they're worthy," Sam said.
Quickly, the adults gave each child a plate and glass of milk, then sat down at their own table. Lori said grace before everyone began eating the special meal.
During the meal, the room was filled with the children's lively chatter. Jonathan joined them in laughter, but Sam was unable to get his mind off Al long enough to enjoy their antics. He noticed that Lori wasn't laughing either. Was there more troubling her than lost sleep?
Just as everyone was finishing their food, the phone rang.
"I'll get that," Ruth said, wiping her face with a paper napkin. She walked over to the phone by the doorway and picked up the receiver. "Hello-Yes, she's here, but I don't think- Okay." She turned toward Lori. "It's the same man who called yesterday, claiming he was your father."
"Hang up on him," Lori said and looked down at her plate.
"I'm sorry, sir, but she doesn't wish to talk to you," Ruth said into the phone, then hung it up.
"Ruth, make sure the children get ready for bed," Lori said, picking up her cup of coffee and bringing it to her lips. "I'll be out in a few minutes to say good night to them."
"What about their bedtime story?"
"I don't feel like it tonight."
Several of the children groaned.
"Lori, I don't understand. Maybe you have good reason to not want to talk to the man, but you don't have to take it out on the children."
"I could read a story to the children," Jonathan offered.
A smile brightened Ruth's face. "That would be great. Thank you, Jonathan. I'll clean up after dinner while you read the story."
"Come with me, kids," Jonathan said, standing, and the children eagerly followed him out the door.
"Would you like me to help you with the dishes?" Sam offered.
"My, my, Lori, you sure picked the right men for those janitorial jobs."
"Are you implying that I'm trying to shrug my duties off on them?" Lori snapped, her face darkening.
"It's just that since this man claiming to be your father has been calling, you haven't exactly been yourself."
"If your father had walked out on you when you were only five-years old, how would you feel?" Lori asked, tears gripping the corners of her eyes. "Put yourself in my position."
"Now, I didn't say life had been easy on you. Don't put words in my mouth. It's just that you don't have to take it out on innocent children. Some of which, I might add, have had a rougher life than you."
"My mother died when I was nine-years old!" Lori said vehemently. "So don't condescend to me. I came to this orphanage to try to make a difference in these children's lives. I want them to feel the security and the happiness that I grew up without."
Ruth lowered her head as if afraid to say anything.
"Well, why don't I start the dishes?" Sam asked. He smiled, hoping it would lighten the tension in the room, then picked up as many plates as he could carry in one trip. He walked into the kitchen, set the plates on the counter, then began running the dishwater. Ruth entered a minute later with more of the dishes.
"Honest, Mark, she's usually not like this," Ruth said in a low voice. "It's just that things have been real hard on her lately. The orphanage may be closed down real soon, and I suspect that's what's really bothering her, though she won't admit it."
"That's a shame," Sam said, opening a drawer and discovering silverware. "Where are the dish rags?"
"I have a friend, Al, who was raised in an orphanage. It wasn't small like this one. He had several bad experiences. Kids were always beating each other up. It seemed as if no one really cared. Al doesn't like to talk about it, and I can't say as I blame him. But this place is different, more like home."
"Yes. The fewer the children, the more it seems like a family instead of an institution."
"How hard is it for these children to find homes?"
"Some are placed in foster homes, even fewer are placed in permanent homes. Most don't even have a chance at being adopted after their third birthday. People wantbabies."
"That's a shame. You have really nice children here."
"Why, thank you."
"I'll go get the rest of the dishes," Sam said, wiping the dishwater off his hands, then walking back through the door to the dining room.
Al, I wish you would come back soon, he thought. I'm really worried about you, Buddy. I don't want to do this without you.
After finishing the dishes, Sam went into his room and sat on his bed to ponder over the situation he had been forced into. Why did this angel think he could help Al better than him anyway? After all, he was the one with the seven degrees. Certainly, he could come up with a reasonable solution without Jonathan's help, or The Boss for that matter. As soon as Al came back, he was going to have a long heart-to-heart with him.
Jonathan entered the room and sat down on his bed.
"Sam, as soon as your friend returns, I think we should-"
"I'll handle Al," Sam replied. "He's my friend. I think I know him better than you do."
"You deal with strangers every leap just like I do with each new assignment. We have to use our instincts to help us decide what we can do to help people. My instincts are saying Al needs help. Aren't yours?"
Sam had to admit, to himself at least, that Jonathan had a point.
"It's not just you. I don't understand why this Boss of ours keeps sending me places that are either stressful to me or Al. Why is HE tormenting Al by bringing him here?"
"It's not my place to answer that."
"Yeah! It's really not your place to interfere in our lives either."
Jonathan glanced up as if asking The Boss for an answer, but shook his head as though no answer came. "It wasn't my idea to send you here," he said after several seconds. "I've lost a friend too. While you're here unwilling to cooperate with me, Mark is sitting in your Waiting Room where I can't even talk to him."
For a few seconds, Sam and the angel stared at one another. Sam wasn't sure what to say. He had been so caught up in anger since learning he had to help an angel that he hadn't even thought about the real Mark Gordon and his relationship with Smith.
Jonathan stood and left the room.
Sam wondered if Jonathan and Mark were as close as he and Al were. It's not easy on anyone, he supposed, having your team split up.
Being an angel had its advantages, one of them the lack of the need to sleep. Jonathan spent the wee hours of the morning straightening up the living room and dusting the furniture. He would need the day to concentrate on his assignment.
The Boss had explained to the angel what he needed to do right after Jonathan had left Sam alone in the bedroom. He was to find Lori's father and to make sure the two became reacquainted. It wouldn't be easy for Jonathan to convince Lori that her father was sincere about wanting her back in his life, but Jonathan wasn't about to fail this assignment.
He had earned a demerit in his handling of his last assignment. He had been hired by a man rich enough to live out three lifetimes in luxury without ever working another day. The Boss had told him that he was there to help the man reconcile with his children, but Jonathan wanted to do more. The neighborhood needed money to build a new shelter for the homeless. He had spent much of his time trying to convince the man to help fund the shelter and had nearly destroyed any chances of a reconciliation between the man and his children. As it turned out, someone else had come forward with the money for the shelter, and though Jonathan's employer remained a tyrant, he did make up with his children.
Jonathan needed to be extra careful on this assignment if he didn't want to get sent back up to Heaven for good. He would pay Peter McKensie a visit that afternoon and convince him to surprise Lori by showing up at the orphanage.
Jonathan finished dusting the coffee table, then returned the Endust to its spot underneath the kitchen sink. He looked at the clock on the wall. It was almost five o'clock. Another hour or so and Sam would be ready to wake up. He decided to go back to their room and wait for the day to begin.
Jonathan sat on his bed and stared at the sleeping man in the other bed. He thought about their argument and missed Mark all the more. Everyone else saw Sam as the person he had leaped into, but Jonathan saw Sam as Sam. He didn't understand why The Boss had allowed this. It was bad enough knowing the man wasn't Mark, but seeing it was pure torture.
He looked up at the ceiling. Why, why? he thought, feeling the same anger toward The Boss that Sam had expressed earlier. He couldn't dare reveal how he felt to Sam though. Not if he wanted to remain on Earth.