Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Third Way

She had to know.

She was committed, of course. Either way. It didn’t really matter at this point as she was in too deep anyway. She knew she loved him, that she was too enamored of him to break away no matter what answer she got. That what mattered now always included him. So she felt at ease, really. Calmly determined. But she had to know the truth. In order to plot a course forward, to get to that next stage, she had to know. With her feelings admitted and received, she had to bring him closer to her, and that meant getting to the bottom of it. She needed the how and why to decide on the what next.

She had decided on an ambush. If she was right, it’d keep him from trying to protect her. If she was wrong, well, then there was less that she’d have to explain. She waited until late. At night after dinner with the twins put to bed. Wine. Two glasses. Part of her felt badly for taking this route, but it was necessary. She’d explain it to him afterwards if need be.

She was done before he was. She sat next to him on their couch, watching him finish the last of his drink and place it next to hers on their end table. She waited a bit and then asked if he would put the glasses away. She watched as he tried to get up and immediately put out a hand to steady himself, slinking back onto the couch and leaning into it for support when he decided that he couldn’t stand.

“Are you feeling okay, EJ?” she asked, knowing exactly why he was not.

“No, I-I-I’m,” he stuttered.

“Dizzy?” she supplied. It was part of why she had made the choice that she did from the options available. She couldn’t risk him going anywhere.

“Yes…I guess I’m more tired than I thought,” he smiled at her lazily. “Your beauty has exhausted me.”

She heard a slur slip into his voice and smiled back. Everything was progressing as it needed to. It was time. She turned to her right to face him and waited a moment, aware of just how silly what she was about to say would sound aloud. “I want to talk to Elvis.”

She received an eyebrow raise from him along with a confused expression. “What?” he asked fuzzily.

“I want to talk to Elvis,” she repeated.

She watched him hesitate, saw him struggle to puzzle out where she was going with this. “Last time I checked, I am Elvis, Samantha,” he eventually offered.

He reeled from the slap more slowly than she had expected. He looked at her in shock, surprise flowing over his entire body. He hadn’t seen it coming.

The second time left a large mark on the right side of his face, the skin bright red from the impact. She had hit him harder. She had intended to do it a third time, but she froze at the pain in his eyes, the depth of his pleading with her not to hurt him again.

She had been wrong.

“Oh, EJ, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she spilled out as she reached up to touch his face. “I’m so so sorry, I didn’t mean to, I was just trying-”

She didn’t finish her sentence. She gasped as his hand flew up and clamped around her wrist, squeezing much too tightly.

“Be careful what you wish for, darling,” he commanded darkly. “You just might get it.”

She wasn’t wrong.

He flipped the two of them over before she knew what was happening, his sweater and jean clad body on top of her and her white dress. And then the same amused gleam in his eyes that she had seen every time he’d hurt her appeared. “Elvis.”

“My dear, you’d think you’d know by now that only turns me on.” He grinned at her, his mouth twisting evilly in a way that it never did otherwise as held her down. “So, sweetheart, you missed me? I’m touched.”

The slurring that had been present in his voice was barely audible now. Even with overcompensating for his size and strength, she still hadn’t given him enough.

“And you know,” he continued, “that makes three of us now. I have to give you credit. You really are a wise girl. You caught on pretty quickly compared to him. You know how he is…so lost in his dreams that he’s a little slow on the uptake sometimes.”

She searched the intensity in his eyes that were only a few inches from hers. So many things that she could ask, so much to know, that she surprised herself when all that came out of her mouth was a simple, “Why?”

“The eternal question with the clear answer, especially in this day and age. What, no Google search? And from a daughter of a renowned doctor specializing in the subject, no less.” He smirked at her threateningly. “You honestly want me to believe that you’re winging this? That you’d talk to me without having considered every single possibility? You tell me.”

With his goading of her, he confirmed her theory, but she couldn’t stop herself from asking anyway. “All those happy times EJ remembers...being raised like a prince…having the best teachers and servants…catching fireflies at nighttime at Maison Blanche with his father…even his Nanny’s tea…none of that ever happened, did it?”

Elvis nodded at her. “Of course not. How could it? After all, you said it yourself, no one else thinks of Stefano as a warm and cuddly guy,” he grinned cruelly. “It never used to be this elaborate, you know? But I think he saw what you had and had to improve it. Make the fairy tale that he tells himself to make some sense of our rather fractured existence even more fantastic. Then he could continue to believe in it even when confronted with how relationships are supposed to work.”

She waited for him to continue, and when silence filled the air instead of his words, she explored the face that was too close to her own. “What happened?” she asked, pushing her curiosity forward to paper over her fear.

He glared at her before dropping his gaze. “The obvious,” he stated bluntly, surprising her with the amount of pain in his voice.

“Please. I want to know the specifics,” she implored, trying to drag his interest away from how he kept trailing his eyes around her neckline.

He tore his look upwards while the strength returned to his voice. “Ah, so you want me to indulge you, Samantha. Very well.” He tilted his head towards her, altering his tone to that of an adult regaling a bedtime story to a child. “Once upon a time, there was a little boy. The little boy lived in England with his mother and stepfather, and he was very happy there. Until one day the little boy’s father appeared in their home and killed his mother and stepfather in front of him. Then the little boy’s father took him away and did whatever was necessary in order to make the little boy into the weapon his father wanted him to be. And then one day, the little boy was hit one too many times, and then there were two. And the second little boy made sure that we were never that helpless again.”

The certainty in his last sentence disturbed her, but she had to confirm what she had heard. “Given the choice between dying or becoming a monster-”

Elvis nodded again as he interrupted her. “EJ chose door number three. He created an option that shouldn’t have existed, but then again, unpredictability is one of our better traits.”

“He wanted to preserve that person who Susan and Edmund loved.” She had said it without thinking, automatically backing the man who held her heart.

Elvis regarded her evenly. “Maybe. Or it could be that he saw that virtue really isn’t its own reward, and since he couldn’t get what he wanted, he decided to give control over to someone who could…personally, I’d go with the latter.”

For a moment, she felt the pull of everything that the man on top of her had been through. But now wasn’t the time. With her hypothesis confirmed, she took a deep breath and moved on to the next step. She refused to give him any quarter as she stared daggers at him. “Let him go, Elvis.”

He laughed loudly. “What?”

“You heard me. Let him go. Get out of his head. He doesn’t need you anymore,” she ordered coldly.

She could see the wheels turning in his mind. He then looked at her condescendingly. “You really think it’s that simple? That you can simply separate us into Good EJ and Evil Elvis? That you can save him and get rid of me?

She raised her voice. “You’re the one destroying his life. EJ is a good man.”

That angered him. She recoiled as he hissed at her. “He is weak. I am the strong one. I am the one who makes things happen. I get things done. I am the one who protects us and goes after what we want. He would have nothing without me.” She listened to the contempt that dripped off of his voice. “Do you know how guilty and ashamed he feels about what happened? When you were still fighting your love for us, he would have let you go. All he did was worry about you and your precious feelings. I’m the one who knew that this was better for you no matter what you thought. I’m the one who made you stay.”

She shot back at him. “You call him weak? You’re nothing but a coping mechanism who has outlived its usefulness. A distorted imitation. You’re not even the original. If you could get rid of him, you already would have. But you can’t, can you? And he can get rid of you, can’t he?”

From the way his expression darkened, she knew she had hit a nerve. But he wasn’t done. He adjusted his grip, overlapping her wrists to hold them with his left hand in order to free his right. He spoke to her plainly, and she was surprised to see the openness in his expression. “I love you more than he ever will.”

She kept to her plan. “He loves me. You use me.”

“Is that all we have? No. He loves you in the way people think you’re supposed to love someone, the way songs and poems and letters describe. Brilliant and pure, all tied up in beautiful wrapping with an elaborate bow.” He ran his long fingers though her hair. “Whereas I…I would do anything for you, Samantha. I’d slaughter all of Salem if you asked me to.”

She gave him the most intense look of disgust she could. “How sweet.”

“Isn’t it?” The corner of his mouth turned up in enjoyment. “I love you in a way he never could. But in any case, you belong to us. You’re ours.”

She didn’t like where he was heading, the ownership implied in his choice of words. “Get out of his head, Elvis,” she spat at him as she tried again.

“Now, now, Samantha, you’re the one who said that you wanted to talk to me, and you have.” He looked her over hungrily. “I obliged you, and it’s your turn to oblige me. Enough talking.” He moved in and began to nuzzle her neck.

A chill ran up her left arm and jumped over to her right. It wasn’t going to be this time. He was too entrenched. She would have to try again, get EJ’s help. Time to end it. “EJ?” she asked tentatively.

Elvis stopped what he was doing momentarily to start snickering. “Good luck with that, darling.”

“EJ?” she asked again. It had to work. It had to go both ways. “EJ?”

“You know how shy he can be, sweetheart.” He started kissing her again, this time more roughly. “How he freezes when he’s around you.”

He wasn’t stopping. She had to get him back before it got ugly for both of them. She had no intention of anyone getting hurt. She raised her voice. “EJ? EJ, I need you. Come on, EJ, wake up!”

Elvis continued idly, “I keep him on a tight leash…I let him play with you because it keeps him entertained…all this parenting, marriage, and romance, and I can’t really be bothered with any of that…necessary certainly, but much too boring for the most part. Why not skip to the good part?”

But whatever control Elvis at his worst had over EJ, EJ had broken it. At the warehouse, she had brought it out of him. He had appeared then, coming to her rescue like the knight she knew he was. She needed that man. She had planned it all out, what she was going to say to him that would bring him back…what was it that she had said to him then?

“Be your own man, EJ!” she screamed.

The switch flipped.

And she watched him stop and look at her with panic as the malevolence faded from his eyes. Almost instantly, he threw himself off of her and backed into the opposite end of the couch. She didn’t know that a face could have that many expressions on it at once, shock, fear, shame, relief, guilt.

His hands shook in his lap. He was terrified. She studied him, forcing a smile on her face. “It’s okay, EJ. It’s okay.”

He stared back, and shook his head at her. “No,” he whispered. And although she watched how much he struggled to hold them back, she saw tears stream silently down his face. “No.”

She inched closer to him. “Yes. It’s okay, EJ.”

She had to make him believe her. No more tears fell, and he made no noise as she crept towards him and embraced him. He was quiet and unmoving as she hugged him and told him that everything was okay again. And again and again and again. And sooner than she expected, he pulled away from her and leaned back on the couch to look at her.

“I’m sorry, Samantha.” The softness was back in his voice along with a heavier slur. “I’m so sorry.”

She repeated herself. “It’s okay, EJ. I understand now. Why didn’t you tell anyone?”

He looked at her uncomprehendingly. “Father thinks Elvis is me. If he knew, he’d try to get rid of me and keep him.”

She frowned inwardly. She hadn’t been able yet to free him of the compulsion to elevate Stefano above himself. “That’s not what I meant, EJ. Why didn’t you tell me?”

Incredulousness spread across his face. “Tell you what, exactly? That I didn’t do any of those horrible things? That I’d never hurt you? That it was my body, but it wasn’t me? That it was my other personality? I might just as well have said it was a one armed man.”

She laughed. Jokes were good. If he could make a wisecrack about it, then he was already feeling better. “No, you’re right. I wouldn’t have believed you.”

He shook his head sadly. “I barely believe it myself.”

“Just because something is hard to believe doesn’t mean it’s not true.” She waited for him to continue.

“I…I always knew that something was…well, off, about the way things were occasionally, but it’s never been this bad, never like this. I thought I was just forgetful, that I had a poor memory once in a while between the late nights and my busy schedule. Like the saying goes, I’ll sleep when I’m dead, eh? But I never missed anything important. Everything could be easily explained. But the last year…” EJ frowned and turned his head to stare off into space. “I don’t know. It’s been confusing. I…I don’t remember everything that’s happened, things I should. And even more is blurry, as if I was there and not there at the same time. Too many bits and pieces without the whole picture.” He turned his head back towards her. “I don’t think he’s ever had to take over full time before. That’s why I didn’t notice until afterwards. It’s…I…I’m missing entire weeks, Samantha,” EJ sighed loudly.

She moved over to him again and placed her hand on his arm, rubbing it through his white cable sweater. “And that’s when you knew?”

He nodded. “I thought of everything else I possibly could before I even considered it, but there wasn’t any other logical explanation.” He rolled his eyes. “Even now, that sounds absurd. Anyway, near the end of last October, things…just stopped making sense. I couldn’t account for so much. I had incomplete memories of events. You got mad at me for things I don’t recall occurring. And it got worse. I started waking up in strange places, and I had no idea how I got there.” He closed his eyes and placed his hand against the bridge of his nose the way she he knew he did when he was frustrated. “I thought that maybe someone was drugging me or some such since that would account for the confusion and memory loss. So I searched my apartment, and I even took a couple of tests. But I was stuck until it occurred to me to pull the Mythic security camera tapes.” He opened his eyes as he grew even more serious. “And there I was, doing all sorts of questionable things that I don’t remember, coming and going at all times of the day and night. I would never have imagined it if I hadn’t seen it myself. I was there physically, but I wasn’t there mentally. He was. He’s driven, certainly, but otherwise he’s not very good at running the show. I’m always tired and irritated whenever I wake up, and then I always have to figure out what he’s done…” He paused, bleakness entering into his tone. “He ruined my life. He hurt the people you care about. And much worse than that, he hurt you.”

He started as he stopped suddenly. “Samantha…how did you know?”

She smiled softly at him. “I didn’t. I guessed. Since we’ve been married and raising the twins, I’ve had a lot of time to think about everything that’s happened to us, and as weird as it was, I kept coming back to how you seemed to be another man depending on when I saw you. How you acted from day to day, even minute to minute often never matched. It was as if you were two different people sometimes. So calm one moment and then so sinister the next. And once that thought occurred to me, I couldn’t stop thinking about it…it was the only thing that made any sense, no matter how strange it was. I simply couldn’t reconcile his actions with yours.”

He met her eyes. “I can’t apologize enough for everything that he’s done. You’d be better off if you’d never met me.”

“No, I wouldn’t.” She took his hand in hers and spoke clearly, saying to him what had taken her so long to admit to herself. “EJ, if I had been honest with myself a year ago, this never would have happened. I shouldn’t have rejected you like that, even if I wasn’t ready for a romantic relationship with you back then. You wouldn’t have needed him if I would have been there for you as you had been there for me all summer.”

He gazed at her adoringly, as if she were some sort of angel. She was still adjusting to how he was awed of her. “You’re too kind, darling.”

“No, it’s the truth. Between me pushing you aside and your father getting sick, you were under a lot of pressure. You were backed into a corner, and he felt he had to protect you. He wouldn’t have come back otherwise,” she assured him.

He shook his head again. “That’s a convenient excuse, isn’t it? Just wave the magic wand, and none of it is my fault because I’m off my rocker?”

“You’re not crazy, EJ. And it isn’t your fault,” she impressed firmly.

He looked down, unwilling to meet her certainty. “I don’t believe that, Samantha,” he said quietly.

“I do. You never asked to be Stefano’s son.” She giggled abruptly. “Take me, for example. I never had a reason that good for anything I pulled.”

When her self depreciation drew no response, she tried another tact. “EJ, you know you’re winning. You’d never put me or the twins at risk if you thought there was even the slightest chance of anything happening. Look at our life together. We haven’t seen him in months. He says it’s because he’s not interested in this part of our relationship, but it’s really because he can’t control you anymore, isn’t it? You’re the one in charge now, and you don’t let him out.”

He grimaced as he looked up. “Then why did I tonight? He could have hurt you again.”

“So you could stop hiding. You wanted me to know. You wanted to be honest with me.” She moved to clasp her free hand with his, so both of their arms were linked together. “EJ, I’m so sorry that you had to go through all that, everything that’s happened. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for you, how life for you was when you were little. You did what you had to do back then. That wasn’t crazy. It was smart. And you’re much stronger than you’re willing to give yourself credit for. You’re a valiant man, EJ. You know that.”

She knew she had hit her mark when he responded with a half-smile. “And knowing is half the battle, eh?”

She shook her head at the reference. “You’re incorrigible.”

That got a full smile. “Just one of the many traits you love about me, sweetheart.”

“True.” She grinned back at him. “You don’t have to worry anymore, EJ. We can get rid of him so he’ll never come back. You’ve already done most of the work. You just need a little assistance for the last part, so I’ll help you. We’ll do it together.”

He studied her for a moment, considering. Then he accepted. “All right. You think it will be enough?”

She nodded. “I think so. And if not, we can get more help for you…without actually asking, if you know what I mean,” she added when she saw trepidation flitter across his face. “No one else needs to know.”

He gave her one of his long looks where she could see his love for her radiate from his eyes. “What would I ever do without you?”

She stared at the man who knew her inside and out and better than she knew herself. The only man who ever actually listened to her and respected her ideas. The man who never gave up on her. The man who made her breakfast without wanting anything in return. The man who was her best friend. The man who put her first and never gave either of her sisters a second glance. The man she relaxed around. The man who she had danced with on the pier.

She beamed at her gift of a husband. “I could ask you the same thing.”

He drew her towards him and wrapped his strong arms around her. “I love you, Samantha.”

She snuggled against him. “I love you too, EJ.”

He kissed her on the top of her head as he enjoyed doing. “Even if you drugged me,” he added happily.

She was still surprised by how quickly he caught on to her, even though she should have known better by now. “Hey, it worked for me, right?” She couldn’t keep the teasing out of her voice.

He raised his head and pretended to look around. “Now where’s that vase?”

They both laughed before they kissed.

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