Sunday, January 13, 2008

The End of the Beginning

It had been nice, mostly.

Her, him, and the twins. In their home. She had been content. He had bounced back from his injury more quickly than she expected. And together they had moved on from everything negative that had happened between them.

It had been nice, mostly.

The mostly worried her.

More than she cared to admit. Something was missing. She couldn’t say what, only that something was off, that something was absent that shouldn’t have been. She found it hard to put into words, a feeling that lingered over what should have been pleasant moments between them. She knew that she would recognize it when she encountered it again, but unable to name it, she found herself reading into things that meant nothing. How he glared at her when she said that his messy hair looked goofy. How he sometimes looked at the twins disinterestedly when she sang to them. How he lingered over the knives a few seconds too long when he was putting the silverware away.

What part of him that she needed wasn’t there? And where had it gone?

She was pulling away from him without meaning to, unable to address what she was missing. She needed to tell him, and she had hoped she had found a way to talk about it without making it worse. She had to ask him without insulting him. Had he even known where he had put whatever it was?

So she had decided that before bed would be best. He would be tired, more open. As they sat on their couch after dinner, after the twins had been put to bed, she decided to move forward. She watched him uneasily before she began. “We need to talk, EJ.”

“Really,” he said dryly as he looked back at her. His eyes glistened in contrast with his blood red sweater and dark black jeans. “About what?”

“About…about you,” she put forth awkwardly. “You…you’re not happy, are you?” She cringed inwardly. It was much more direct than she had intended. Would it be the right angle? How else could she state it to him when she didn’t know herself?

He studied her and nodded. “No, I’m not.”

“Why not?” she asked, wondering what part of the life that they had begun to build together wasn’t fulfilling him.

EJ grimaced before he spoke. “Because…because I’m frustrated,” he admitted slowly. “And I think we should do something about it.”

“You mean like a vacation?” she lit up. She would like that. They could take all kinds of pictures together, and-

He smiled at her patronizingly. “No, not a holiday. That’s not the kind of frustration I’m talking about, Samantha.”

She thought for a moment, and then it dawned on her, and the smile dropped off her face. “I thought we agreed to take things slow. You needed to recover after what happened at the wedding,” she said carefully as she pretended to brush some dust off of her green velvet dress, unwilling to contemplate what he was going to say next. She didn’t want to go in this direction. Not now, not when she couldn’t pinpoint what about him was bothering her.

EJ glared at her. “There’s slow, and then there’s glacial, darling. I’m recovered.”

She looked back at him and shivered unexpectedly. She didn’t like the way he was leering at her. “You’re scaring me, EJ,” she said honestly. She had to remind him that he didn’t like to do that.

She saw EJ consider her words and then nod acceptably as he crossed his arms across his chest. “Good.”

That hadn’t been the response she expected. Things were suddenly spiraling out of control. She hadn’t heard him speak so harshly to her in months. He was backsliding, hard. But why? Why now? Why wasn’t he getting better?

“I should go check on the twins,” she said abruptly, rising from the couch.

He grabbed her arm nearly instantly and got up off of the couch himself. “They’re fine,” he insisted, holding her too tightly, searching her eyes.

She did not like where this was headed. “Let me go, EJ,” she said worriedly.

He moved his head slightly and dropped the hold on her arm. As he looked at her, she saw that he was debating something. An explanation? An apology? She could handle a slip, even one this large-

The blood drained out of her face when he removed the hidden gun from his waistband and pointed it at her.

“It always has to be this way to for ‘us’ to get anywhere, doesn’t it? And by ‘us,’ I mean ‘me,’” he breathed at her.

Sami stared at the gun in horror. She involuntarily backed away from the man she thought that she had been meant to spend her life with. This shouldn’t have been happening. She had been wrong. She had been totally wrong. It hadn’t been enough. The marriage, the injury, the house, the children. All the time they spent together. Her love. It hadn’t been enough. It hadn’t been enough to change him. To fix the part of him that was broken.

EJ looked at her disappointedly. “I have been beyond patient with you, you know.”

She stared at him, trying to figure out where she had gone wrong. “EJ, you don’t want to do this,” she pleaded with him.

He smiled wickedly at her, his eyes lighting up with the same malevolence that she remembered too well. “Oh, I most certainly do.”

It was her fault what happened next.

She had ruined the element of surprise. She had been unable to keep the pure shock off of her face when the front door of their home had suddenly flown open and a bearded, disheveled thinner version of her husband had appeared behind him. It had been too much of a warning, and the man in front of her in the red sweater wheeled around and flipped the intruder around towards her, knocking them both to the ground.

“I was wondering when you’d finally show up,” the man with the gun mused dryly, adjusting his aim as the sheer annoyance dripped off of his voice. “You always had almost perfect timing, after all.”

The unkempt man next to her sat up immediately and grabbed her arm, his familiar eyes searching her as he spoke to her in the same English accent as the first man. “Are you okay?”

She was too stunned to do anything but nod at him.

He nodded back. “All right.” He helped her up and purposely placed his body in front of hers as he spoke to the other man in the room. “Let her go,” he commanded.

“At this point? Not a chance,” the man who was supposedly her husband answered firmly.

She looked back and forth between the two men in her living room multiple times. She wasn’t imagining this. Two. More importantly, beneath the differences in their appearance, a matching set. How was that possible? She didn’t know what to think. “EJ?” she asked both of them.

“I suppose the jig is up now, eh?” the man clad in the red sweater asked. “Care to let her in on the con or shall I?”

The disheveled man in front of her in a dirty white t-shirt and torn black jeans looked at her sadly and swallowed.

“Oh, yes, now I remember, you never wanted her to find out about this, which is why you continued to go along with it,” the man with the gun continued. “I suppose I might as well explain it since I’m the one who does everything anyway.” He glanced at her. “As you can plainly see, there are two of us. Me, and him. The complete idiot standing by you is Elvis. I am John.”

She couldn’t have been more surprised than if dinosaurs had suddenly ran across the room. “John?! You’re kidding.”

“You honestly think Father would let his favorite son be named after some inglorious American musical artist?” John stated indignantly. “Although it’s an apt moniker for this moron here. He’s a joke, just like his namesake.”

She felt Elvis stir angrily in front of her, but he said nothing.

Confronted with the indisputable proof before her, she had to believe it. “But why?” she asked, unable to keep the absolute puzzlement out of her voice.

“Surprise, my dear,” John responded. “As capable as I am, and as occasionally useful as Elvis can be, ruining an entire family isn’t an easy task. Simply too many unknown variables, too many chances for things to go wrong. We needed every advantage possible.”

Elvis added, “It allowed us a particular freedom that two identities could not.”

The man in the red sweater nodded. “There is no EJ. There never was. We were him. Elvis and I created him in order to complete our assigned tasks here in Salem. And let me tell you, the ‘E’ before the ‘J’ was very much a compromise on my part,” John explained to her.

It was crazy, but she had to ask. “Even all the race car stuff?”

“Particularly all the race car stuff,” John mocked her. “In this day and age, anything can be created with the internet and enough cash.” He continued. “Anyway, Elvis here was the distraction while I did all the heavy lifting. And everything was moving along well with the blackmail and the gloved hand stunts until emo boy here began to care more about you than the mission.”

Elvis stared back at his twin, still continuing to shield her from John’s aim. “Let her go, John,” he commanded again.

“Oh, it’s you, I want? Please.” John frowned at his brother. “Don’t insult me. You’ve failed me too many times, Elvis. Had to be a gentleman, had to wait and wait and wait until it was almost too late. I did what needed to be done. I saw an opening, and I took it.”

Sami suddenly realized that the man that she had lived with wasn’t sorry at all for what had happened between them. She shot daggers at John. “You bastard.”

“You wanted it! Shut your eyes, pretended you were with your precious pathetic knight in shining armor here-” John spat at her.

“You shut your mouth or I will shut it for you,” Elvis seethed at John as he interrupted.

John laughed at him. “What, impugn the honor of your fair lady? She’s a two-timing whore along with being an uneducated bimbo.”

“No, she’s not.” Elvis sighed suddenly. “Please, John. It doesn’t have to be like this. Give me another chance,” he asked quietly.

“Like the last time I gave you another chance? At the warehouse? Where instead of ending up with stem cells to save Father I ended up with kids? You’re the one who wanted children, not me,” John stated angrily. “Enough of this anyway. I have had enough of your incompetence. She’s mine, and there’s no place for you.” He readied himself to fire.

Time run out, Elvis moved his gaze away from his brother and slid his vision back towards her. She met his eyes as they looked at each other.

She took the initiative. Stepping to the side, she hissed at John, “You’re delusional. I will never be yours. You have no respect for the life that I wanted.”

Enraged, John gave her the response that she needed and turned his head towards her, fire blazing in his eyes. “This life? This life that you wanted? To be burdened with the typical marriage and children? You don’t want this. I wanted to free you, release you from all this sheer banality. We don’t belong here, you and I-”

Elvis made the most of his opportunity.

He leaped forward and tackled his brother, the two of them stumbling out of the room, out the front door and onto the lawn, a blur of punches and kicks. She felt her heart skip several beats as she followed them outside and watched, until John pulled away from Elvis, falling onto the grass beneath him. She then saw that Elvis had taken the gun and was pointing it at John, who was on the ground a few feet in front of him.

She wondered whether she could afford to call the police until John looked at his twin too calmly. “You don’t want to do this, Elvis.” She knew at that moment that she couldn’t afford to leave.

“I always end up doing a lot of things I don’t want to do because of you, John,” Elvis said robotically, staring down at the man in front of him detachedly.

“Come on, Elvis…brother,” John implored his twin.

The disheveled man’s eyes flared angrily. “You have no right to call me that.”

“You are my little brother, are you not?” John grinned sinisterly at Elvis. “You can’t kill me. You tried, remember? After you learned that I had been with Samantha? You were irate, beyond mad, and you tried and tried, and you just could not do it.”

“Practice makes perfect,” Elvis said darkly.

She saw that was when John realized that things were no longer under his control. His eyes shifted as he changed tacts. “All right then. Congratulations. You win. You understand, Elvis? I’ll go, and leave you and your sweetheart here to be the happy little family you’ve always wanted.”

Elvis stared at his brother and shook his head slightly. “I don’t believe you.”

“I’m not exactly in any position to trick you now, am I?” John persuaded. “You have your freedom and the gun. Heck, you even have the girl. Good show. With you finally getting on the ball, you don’t need me around anyway, eh?”

She saw Elvis’ arm waver as he spit his next words out. “Leave then. Never return. Now.”

John nodded at his brother, getting up and dusting himself off. “As you wish. It took you an extra ten years, but you’re finally a man now. So it’s been fun, Elvis. Samantha.” John glanced in her direction. “For what it’s worth, I hope you two are very happy-”

It was louder than she expected.

She hadn’t realized that she had looked away until she turned her neck back as Elvis lowered his arm. His aim was true. The man who had been John fell to the ground, the knife that he had been concealing in his left hand dropping onto the grass. She locked her gaze on Elvis and knew from the intensity in his eyes that had he fired a moment later, the blade would have been impaled in her chest.

It had all taken much too long, and she did most of the talking, well, almost all of the talking. He had stared at the sheet covering the body on the lawn at first, and then at the ground once it was removed, speaking in a monotone when his preliminary statement was taken, gripping her hand with intensity that should have bothered her but reassured her instead. Nearly everyone who could come did, all of them staring at the man who had stood next to her in complete bewilderment. She had refused almost all of the offers, the night in a luxury hotel, the suggestions to stay with them or come to their residences, and the one everyone had been the most insistent on, which had been the urging to take EJ-no, Elvis, she mentally corrected herself, to the hospital. She knew that it was the proper thing to do, but that neither she nor he wanted it. The one suggestion she had accepted was Aunt Hope’s offer to take the twins for the night, not because that she wanted to be away from them at a time like this, but because she needed time alone with someone else.

She sat across from him now in her kitchen at the table. He had showered and shaved, his medium length hair still slightly wet. He looked younger than his actual age, wearing deep blue jeans and a forest green sweatshirt that was too large for his emancipated frame. She had made him something to eat. Chicken soup. It seemed appropriate somehow. The man that should have been hers all along hadn’t appeared to notice it placed in front of him, alternating between staring at her and into space. After more time than she expected, he frowned at her. “I don’t know if the grass will come back on that part of the lawn.”

It was an absurd thing to say, and she couldn’t stop herself from laughing. But her loudness startled him and he froze, dread silence again filling the house. She waited for him again, again for too long before he spoke.

“I should go,” he said blankly, making no effort to move from where he was sitting.

She wanted to tell him that he had just arrived, but she knew she had to tread lightly.

“I should go, Samantha,” he repeated. The haunted look in his eyes tore at her.

She couldn’t bear to see the pall over his face or the hollowness in his gaze any longer. Sami got up, moved over to Elvis, and sat in his lap, pulling both of his arms around her. “Wherever you go, I go,” she stated unarguably. She should have done this the instant he sat down. She needed him to hold her. He needed her to need him.

She felt him relax almost immediately. “I’m…I’m not your husband,” he said even as he rested his head on top of hers. His hair brushed her face, and she thought about how much it looked as it had when she had first laid eyes on him.

“Aren’t you?” she asked simply.

He hesitated. “This is your life, your house, your…children.”

“You’re the same genetically,” she tossed out without thinking.

It hadn’t been what he was looking for. He stiffened. “And that doesn’t frighten you?” indicating by his tone that it terrified him.

“After everything that happened tonight? Never.” She closed her eyes and rested against him. This was the man she had been missing, the one who she had been looking for, only in the wrong place. With him, she felt that which had been misplaced. All of the things she had missed.

The one she needed now was comfort.

For both of them.

She was quiet, letting him think, waiting until he was ready. When he didn’t volunteer anything after several minutes, she opened her eyes and prompted him. “He didn’t let you out much, did he?”

“No,” he responded. “He barely trusted me to begin with, but after January, he was very careful to control my visits. Only when he needed me to be EJ’s good side. That’s why he didn’t kill me after messing up his plans again,” he stated factually. “Because he truly needed me to do that. He could barely stand it, you know. Pretending to be nice took so much out of him.”

No wonder John had been increasingly on edge with her. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“He told me he’d kill you and your entire family along with the rest of Salem. I couldn’t risk it,” he explained. “He also supervised me too closely, always monitoring me. Take what happened in June for instance. We would never have been able to save you from all those attempts on your life without working together.”

That surprised her, that both of them had joined together for her at times. “So you kept up the charade?”

“Yes,” he nodded, his jaw ruffling the top of her hair. “He promised me. He told me that he wasn’t interested anymore, that I could marry you. That he would disappear and leave us alone.”

She just couldn’t believe that he was that na├»ve. “You didn’t expect him to doublecross you?”

He shook his head. “Of course I did. He constantly lied to me. I just wasn’t prepared enough. He always managed to get the upper hand on me, and that time wasn’t any different, no matter how much it needed to be. We fought, I lost, he locked me up for good…” he trailed off.

“And then I married him,” she finished for him.

“Yes, and that’s what really set him off, even more so than the aftermath. This isn’t what he envisioned at all. You weren’t fulfilling his fantasy. I think he had some twisted idea in his head about the two of you running off together to do who knows what. He wanted you to join him, be his literal partner-in-crime. He said that he could help you understand who you really were.”

She asked him quizzically, “How do you know that?”

“He told me. He checked in on me occasionally. Brought me bottled water, let me know how everything was going.” He sounded so grateful that she couldn’t bear to say anything in response to it, to remark on how heartbreakingly thin he was. How could such a kind man be born into such a malevolent family?

“How long were you trapped?” she asked.

“Quite some time. Honestly, I’m not really sure how long,” he answered as he recalled a dimly lit warehouse subbasement and how he had managed to slowly chisel through concrete with an exceedingly stubborn spare piece of plastic. “I was so worried about you. I could have reached him before, but after everything that happened…he was the worst that I had ever seen him. You hadn’t been the woman he wanted, and he was seething. I could see that he wasn’t going to be appeased this time, no matter what. There was no longer any reasoning with him. I had been trying the entire time, but I had to escape and get here. I had to save you.”

“And you did,” she said as she snuggled against him.

“Yes…I got here just in time. Everything is all right,” he said aloud, and she could tell that it was as much for his benefit as her own. “But none of this should have ever happened. It shouldn’t have been like this. I never should have gone along with any of this. I should have stood up to him. I should have told you back in the beginning, no matter how hard it was.” He swallowed harshly. “I’m so sorry. I’m a coward, Samantha.”

She wasn’t sure how to respond to that. He was correct that if he had been more assertive, much of what had happened to her, to him, to all of them could have been averted. But if he had been outwardly stronger, Stefano and John wouldn’t have allowed Elvis to stay as he was. His supposed weakness had protected him from losing his soul the way his father and brother had, from succumbing to the darkness surrounding him.

“You’re my coward,” she decided finally.

He sat up a bit straighter. “I can live with that.” He spoke again quietly as he looked off into the distance. “He always was a cold evil bastard, you know? A shark. He loved to make everything into a game, always manipulating things to his will. He got so much out of hurting people just because he could. And what he did to you was unforgivable…but I miss him.”

Pure anger welled up in her and she opened her mouth to scorn the dead brother of the man who held her, but as she did so, an image she that didn’t expect flashed across her vision. Another man, elsewhere with shining eyes and a smile that could light up the sky, a man who shared a connection with her that she could always feel in the back of her head.

She’d always love Eric no matter what.

And she knew that it would be the same for the twins. And how Elvis had had the same bond with John and willingly severed it. The enormity of what he had given up for her suddenly hit her, that while it had been the right and clear choice, it had been anything but easy for him.

“I know,” she said softly.

He accepted her gift for what it was, a statement of fact. He refused to ask for what she could not give and marveled at how selfless that admission to him had been. “Thank you.”

They continued to sit, basking in each other’s presence, letting their breathing reassure each other that they were still together. The silence stretched across the room. Eventually, he sighed softly. “How can I possibly make this up to you, Samantha?”

With the twin reveal and its ending, her fears were answered and her worries allayed. But it was apparent to her from the trepidation in his voice that his would not be so easily cured. She wordlessly reached out in front of them and tugged on the placemat underneath the soup she had prepared for him.

He giggled unexpectedly. “I appreciate the thought, darling, but I was thinking more along the lines of buying you a castle.”

She was about to laugh before she caught herself and realized that he could really do it. “I’d like that, but this will do for now,” she then said honestly, reaching out again and nudging the meal forward.

“Thank you,” he replied nicely while eyeing the soup with disinterest.

Why wasn’t he hungry? “You have to eat, EJ,” she said bluntly. A small smile appeared on his face as she called him by the name she was used to. “Oh, I’m sorry. I meant-”

“I know. It’s okay. I don’t mind,” Elvis said nonchalantly. “You can still call me that.”

“No, I want to get it right from now on,” she told him. Elvis. She needed to remember.

He was unconcerned. “It doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about it.”

As he held her, it was all the more apparent to her that he was the calm, obedient one. John had been headstrong, pretending to agree to her demands yet all the while pushing his own agenda. But she could already tell that the opposite was going to be an issue with Elvis. “No, I insist.”

“It really is fine, my dear, but okay then. Elvis is it is,” he agreed with her.

They sat once again in silence for several minutes. She frowned slightly as he still made no move towards what she had prepared for him. Had she misjudged what he would want? “I can make you something else,” she ventured.

“No, I’m sure it’s good,” he answered positively.

“I wouldn’t go that far, considering it’s my cooking after all,” she said as she reached out for the spoon and took a sip of the soup. They had been sitting together longer than she’d thought. “Besides, it’s cold now. So I’ll make you something else. What would you like?”

“You don’t have to do anything,” he replied. “I appreciate the effort, Samantha, but I’m really not hungry.”

She wondered how that was even possible. She estimated that he had to be twenty pounds underweight at the very least. Had he really been starved the entire time? “You are going to eat something even if I have to shove cupcakes down your throat,” Sami finally stated, exasperated.

She felt better than she expected when he perked up at that suggestion. “Well, now that sounds intriguing…what kind of cupcakes are we talking about exactly?” He raised his head from hers and turned to look at her, grinning in such a way that his smile reached his eyes. “Ones with pink frosting? Little sprinkles on them?” he teased her. “I think I’d like that very much…but only if I get to kiss your lips afterwards to see if they are as sweet as you are.”

She beamed at the complement and, taking it as a spur onward, hopped down off of his lap. “Come on.”

“Where…what?” Elvis looked at her blankly.

She made a show of walking over to the counter where she had set down her purse earlier. “We’re going to go get you those cupcakes.”

He still hadn’t moved. “You’re serious,” he ventured.

“Of course I am.” It was more painful to look at him than she wanted to admit. She had felt his exhaustion as she had sat on his lap and leaned against his chest. He was clearly still operating on the adrenaline that had enabled him to save her, but she strongly doubted that he was thinking anything along those lines. He was too oblivious to how poorly his late brother’s clothing fit on him and too grateful to be in her presence, his eyes shining with how pleased he was just to be around her. She stared back at him. How long would it take her to make him well?

He still looked completely surprised at her movements. She could now see he had only responded as he had because he had been certain nothing was actually going to come of it. “Samantha, it’s two o’clock in the morning,” he explained questioningly.

“And that’s why God made people who invented twenty four hour supermarkets,” she shot back at him.

Elvis looked at her for a moment and then raised an eyebrow incredulously. “How could I possibly argue with impeccable logic such as that, eh?”

“You can’t. Especially when it’s the only thing you feel like eating,” she replied determinedly.

She watched him debate internally and then resign himself to her resolve. “Well…if your mind is made up,” he began slowly, mock dejectedly as he stood up and joined her.

“You’re just looking for an excuse,” she interrupted cheerily.

She began to move towards the door, and he followed behind for a moment before stopping. Sami turned to face him as she also halted, and upon seeing the hesitation that held him, took his hand in hers, wrapping her entire hand around his slender fingers that were even thinner than they were supposed to be. She looked up at him and waited, anticipating what he was about to say to her, knowing that he had to say it in order to move forward.

“We can’t pretend that everything is fine,” he stated bluntly. He took a deep breath before steeling himself in order to continue. “I’m not…I’m not him.” His voice, which had remained steady otherwise, wavered on the last word.

And how lucky was she that he wasn’t? “I know, Elvis.”

Her utter certainty received a half-smile in return. “I don’t think you do. I’m…I’m,” he paused as he trailed off. She saw him visibly struggle to qualify the gulf of differences, both great and small, that separated himself from his now late brother and from the joint persona that they had created together. “I’m not who you think I am.”

“I know exactly what kind of man you are,” she told him quietly. She could already tell that Elvis was different from both John and EJ. But she had met this man before. The quiet man who stood near her had been the one who had read letters with her, who had flown in dinner for her, who had pictures taken together with her. When she cried, he was the one who had held her. “The one I love.”

Elvis smiled genuinely at her, the honesty on his face warming her heart. “I love you too, Samantha,” he whispered. “But we can’t fix this one night over sweets. This is not going to be easy. Figuring everything out is going to take awhile. It’s going to be hard…complicated.”

Sami looked back at him and raised her own eyebrow. “A man once told me that things of value usually are.”

That brought the mischievous twinkle back to his eyes. “Oh, I wouldn’t listen to him necessarily.”

“Really? He was rather charming,” she continued slyly.

The challenge accepted, he moved evenly with her and wrapped their linked arms around her waist. “You see, sweetheart, that’s exactly what he wants you to think,” he explained excitedly to her as he moved them towards the front door, “so you’ll let your guard down.”

She smiled at the man who only needed a white horse to complete his gallantry. “And why exactly would he want that?” she asked simply.

Sami was surprised by how innocent Elvis could look. “I wouldn’t have any idea…but I could attempt some educated guesses,” he replied as a smirk grew across his face and then hers.

Their barely repressed snickering turned into all out laughter once they were outside.

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