(all disclaimers in pt 1)

* * *

Carol stands sentry outside CJ's office, glaring at me sternly when I
approach the door. She's no-nonsense and I know better than to mess
with her when she's like this, but I barrel ahead anyway.

"No, Sam," she says sternly.

"Carol, I have to."

"She gave me strict instructions not to let anyone disturb her."

"Carol," I plead, "it's important. Vitally."

"Vitally shmitally," she says with a toss of her head. "CJ is not to
be disturbed. I'll have her call you when she's through."

"Through with what? What is she doing in there?"

"Not that it's *any* of your business, Sam, but she's on a conference
call."

"I have to talk to her."

Finally Carol looks at me--really looks at me, taking in the
expression on my face that I'm sure speaks plainly of my desperation.
I can see her relenting. "Well," she says reluctantly.

"CJ will be glad you did," I promise her.

Carol sniffs at me. "Well, you *do* look desperate. Okay," she
sighs, "hang on. Let me tell her you're here." She disappears into
CJ's office and reappears a moment later. "Ten minutes," she says,
sweeping the door open wider, allowing me to pass through.

I find CJ sitting behind her desk, scribbling furiously away on a
steno pad. Her glasses are slipping down her nose and I can see one
bare foot stretching out from under the desk, but otherwise she looks
picture-perfect as always. "Just one second," she says without
looking up.

I sink down onto her sofa without bothering to take off my jacket or
say hello.

"Just...one...more...second..." she says again, punctuating each word
with more scribbles. She makes one final, emphatic mark on the paper
and then tosses her pen down, looking up at me with a warm,
triumphant grin that eases some of the tension a little. "You would
not *believe* the hassle a few third-rate Edward R. Murrows can put a
person through, Sam. Believe it or not, there *is* a hierarchy among
independent papers."

I smile tightly.

"I'm sorry. Forget about all that," she says, pulling her glasses off
her face. "Carol said it was something important?"

"Lisa called me," I blurt out.

The shock on CJ's face would be comical if I weren't so nerve-wracked
at the moment. "Lisa as in, your wife Lisa?" Even in my current state
I manage to shoot her a look. "Okay, yes," she answers herself. She
rises from behind her desk and crosses over to me, her bare feet
padding softly across the floor. "What--I mean, what happened, Sam?"
she asks as she sits beside me on the couch. "Did she say anything? I
mean--what did she say?"

I swallow hard. "She wants to meet with me."

"*Meet* with you?" CJ practically squeaks. "With your lawyers?"

"Alone."

"'Cause I was gonna say, Josh will have a fit when he--" CJ breaks
off, another stunned expression crossing her face. "*Alone*?"

"Yeah," I nod, "just the two of us. No lawyers, no legal demands, no
muss, no fuss." There's the sarcasm again.

"Sam," she breathes in slight disbelief. She leans back against the
sofa, crossing her long legs with a soft whisper of nylon against
nylon. "Are you considering it?"

"I'm more than considering it. I'm going to do it."

CJ looks at me curiously, head tilted to one side, and cuts to the
chase. "Then why are you here?"

"I--I needed to talk to someone."

"And you came to me?" She's unable to keep the surprise out of her
voice. "Sam, I'm flattered, but--why?"

I'm not quite able to answer that myself. I've burned my bridges with
both Josh and Sabrina, it's true, but for some reason CJ was still
the first person to come to mind after I hung up with Lisa. Maybe
because I needed someone who would be calm in the face of my turmoil,
someone who wouldn't pity me or rail at me, someone who would just
listen. Somehow I knew that someone would be CJ.

"Sam," her voice is low and soft, "are you sure about this?"

There's no judgment in her words, only curiosity and the gentlest
sympathy, but I feel that familiar hysteria rising in my chest. I
stare at her for a moment, thinking how those big, expressive eyes of
hers suddenly seem to be as intense as lasers. I feel trapped
suddenly, a deer in headlights, my body frozen as CJ's eyes bore into
me.

"Sam. You just have to be sure."

And suddenly adrenaline is like electricity in my veins, and I lift
my body off the sofa with a sudden jolt, startling CJ, who stares at
me in surprise as I begin pacing around her office.

"Do you know...do you know what this has been like for me, CJ?" I
ask, as my fingers wreak havoc in my hair. "I can't eat, I can't
sleep, I can't think about anything other than all *this*. There's
this feeling inside of me, and it's a fucking black *hole*, CJ, and I
don't know what to do!" The words are coming faster and faster, and I
can feel my heartrate speeding up. I can hardly breathe. I'm choking
on the words. I don't know if I can keep myself from exploding into
tiny shards of panic.

"Sam," CJ sounds alarmed now. She rises from the sofa and stands
beside me. She's in her bare feet and her eyes are nearly level with
mine. "Sam, breathe."

My eyes dart wildly over her face, my nostrils flaring, taking in the
scent of her perfume and the lingering traces of peppermint on her
breath. "What am I doing to myself, CJ?" For a second I don't realize
I've said the words aloud.

"Breathe," she says again, and she grasps my elbows in her hands, her
grip soft yet intense.

"What am I doing to the people around me? Josh--my mother--my sister--
"

"Breathe, Sam."

"The things I've said to them...CJ, if you had seen my sister's
face..." And suddenly *I'm* seeing my sister's face--for the
hundredth time--the color draining away, the light fading from her
eyes--the expression of horror and pain. And then Sabrina's face
morphs into Josh's, and he's yelling at me in the polling center, and
then Josh becomes my mother--wouldn't he love that?--and she's giving
me the You Broke My Heart Face. And then they're all looking at me,
all three of them, and they're shaking their heads at me because I've
disappointed them. I've failed them. I've failed them because I'm so
angry I don't really care anymore; not about them, not about myself
even.

"Sam." CJ's voice is steel now, hard, unyielding, firm. "Sam, you
have *got* to slow down and you have got to *breathe*."

"I am breathing," I say miserably. I try to push her away, but she
comes right back at me. Damn but the woman is tenacious.

"No, you're not." She slips one hand under my jacket and presses it
against my chest. "My God, your heart is *racing*--"

"I'm fine."

"I'm going to call Abbey."

"CJ."

"I think you're having a panic attack, Sam."

"Oh, you're an expert, are you?"

She just looks at me with frank disinterest, blinking almost lazily
at my outburst. "I tell you what, Sam, I'm no medical expert, but
when a man's been under the kind of pressure you have for the last
several weeks--"

"What do you know about the pressure I've been under?" Her hand is
still on my chest and I curl my fingers around it tightly. Right now
she's my anchor. CJ Cregg is all that's keeping me from going
completely over the edge. Unless maybe I'm already over the edge, in
which case at least she's a warm hand to hold.

CJ just grins at me. "I think I've seen a little of it." Her fingers
spread out across my shirt and she gazes down at our hands joined
together. "The people who love you have been paying closer attention
than you think. I know it's corny as hell, but you're not alone, Sam.
Far from it. You've just--you've got to stop taking the world onto
your shoulders, Atlas."

I laugh softly. "That's something Bri said to me not too long ago."

"Well, she's right." Our eyes meet again. "She's a smart woman, your
sister. And she loves you, Sam. I'm sure whatever you said--"

I cut her off, pulling my hand away from hers. "You don't know what I
said."

"It can't have been that bad."

With a sigh that I feel with every fiber of my being, I sink back
down onto the sofa and rub my face. "I compared her to our mother."

"Ouch...Well, I'm sure she'll never thank you for it," CJ says
brightly, "but it's not like it can't be--"

"I accused her of trying to orchestrate my life. I told her Lisa had
been right about her. I told her I didn't need her love or approval
or support." My eyes are fixed on the floor, but I can practically
see CJ's stunned expression as I hear her sharp intake of breath. "I
told her not to come back."

"Oh Sam..."

"I know. CJ, believe me, I know."

"Why?" she asks in bewilderment. "Where did all that come from?"

"From the same place where I accused Josh of having more ego than
common sense."

"Oh Sam," she says again.

"She thinks I'm weak."

"Who?" CJ asks after a moment.

"My sister."

CJ gives a short burst of laughter and my head flies up. "I'm sorry,
Sam, but--*Sabrina*? Thinks you're *weak*?"

"And this is funny how?" I ask indignantly.

"Come on! If you walked on water you wouldn't be any more perfect in
your sister's eyes, Sam. That girl thinks you hung the moon and the
stars."

"Hero worship," I snort, "means nothing."

"It means everything to *her*," CJ insists. "I've met your mother,
you know, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out where your
father's priorities were, if you'll forgive me for saying so. It
paints a pretty vivid picture, Sam. Here's this sweet, intelligent
little girl desperate for love and affection," CJ illustrates with
gentle hand gestures, "and over here you have the affectionate-but-
distant father and over here you have the look-but-don't-touch, ice
queen mother. And *then*," she says dramatically, "what do we have
over here? The big, strong, handsome older brother. Daddy's off on
business trips 45 weeks a year and Mommy is disappointed in every
move her little girl makes, but Big Brother? He takes her out for ice
cream. He teases her when she gets phone calls from boys. When she
has a bad dream, he sings her the Moody Blues to put her to sleep. He
double-checks her homework and screens her dates and tells her when
she's not eating enough, and he's *there*, Sam. He's *proud* of her.
He fixes things when they go wrong, and when he can't fix them, he's
just *there*."

I sigh. "That's not strength, CJ."

Seconds pass by and when I glance over at CJ she's looking at me with
a grim, tight-lipped expression. After a moment she shakes her
head. "You're not as smart as I thought you were, Sam," she says
pityingly.

"Just..." My voice is barely audible. I clear my throat. "Just let me
ask you something..."

She doesn't reply, only stares back curiously.

"Do you know how hard it is to live up to an ideal? Anyone's ideal?
Do you know how hard it is to live up to the ideal of three very
different people?"

CJ is tense and still, her body rigid with anticipation. She still
doesn't say anything, but waits patiently for me to continue. I lean
back into the sofa again, covering my eyes with my arm.

"Do you have any idea," I begin, "how exhausting it is to try to be
three different Sam Seaborns?" I chuckle mirthlessly at how self-
indulgent I sound, but continue anyway. The words won't stop. "The
perfect son--the perfect husband--the perfect brother. It's almost--
it's almost a *relief* to get to work where I can just be...me."

"Sam?" CJ asks, and I sense the question she's not asking.

"I'm not saying I'm not 'me' with my mother or my sister," I
amend. "It's just that I'm always stronger, or kinder, or more
protective, or more heroic, or more *whatever*--and when I'm here,
when I'm with you or Josh or Toby, I can just be *me*. No adjectives,
no superlatives, just me." I break off. "Shit, I hate the way I sound
right now."

CJ makes a soft, soothing noise and lays a hand on my arm. "It's
okay," she says.

I lift my arm from my eyes and grab her by the hand, desperately.
She's my anchor. I can't let her go yet. "I'm no one's ideal, CJ! I
can't be perfect. I can't be a perfect *anything*!"

"Sam..." CJ leans down to rest her head next to mine on the back of
the sofa. She smiles tenderly and squeezes my hand. "Someone has to
tell you that no one expects you to be perfect, *least* of all your
sister. Look...*we* like you just fine the way you are, when you're
here with us, when you're 'Just Sam'. Why would you think that your
sister, who has known you and loved you her entire life, wouldn't be
the same?"

"But you said--"

"When I said she thought you hung the moon and the stars, I didn't
mean--" CJ sighs indulgently. "Men have to make everything so damn
complicated." Her eyes narrow. "You realize what this really is,
don't you, Sam?"

"What *what* is?"

"Sabrina doesn't think you're weak--*you* do. Sabrina doesn't care if
you fail, but *you* care if you fail to measure up to her
expectations."

"CJ--"

"That's it, isn't it, Sam?"

"Your pop psychology astounds me, but frankly--"

"But frankly," CJ says, releasing my hand, "you know I'm right."

And she is. God, she's right. I feel the weight of other people's
expectations like physical things. When I'm with my mother and my
sister, I feel I have to be so much more than I am, I have to try
harder, and if I fail--if I slip even for a second--I just can't live
with myself. The weight of their expectations becomes heavier the
more I fail.

CJ's phone rings, startling our reverie with its shrill tones. She
moves to her desk and answers, and from her side of the conversation
I gather that she's talking to Josh. I stand and tug at the sleeves
of my jacket, shifting my weight from one foot to another as she
finishes her conversation.

When she hangs up our eyes meet again. "I gotta go," she says.

"You didn't tell him I was here."

"No," she agrees, hesitating. "He--he didn't sound like he would be
entirely receptive to the news."

"Yeah."

"So you're going to meet with Lisa," CJ says, placing her hand on her
desk, steadying herself as she tugs her shoes back on.

Strange; I'd almost forgotten the whole reason I came here. I nod
emphatically. "I am. Tomorrow night, as a matter of fact."

"My, my, that's awfully soon."

I laugh bitterly. "You don't think I've had to wait long enough? I
wanted to do it tonight, but she wasn't free."

"I only meant--"

"I know."

She scoops up a stack of papers and her binder and chews her lip
thoughtfully for a moment. "Somebody should be there."

"What? Where?"

"Wherever you're meeting."

"CJ, I don't think that's such a--"

"You don't?" She interrupts me and shoots me the death-ray glare, the
one that makes me feel like I've given the wrong answer on a pop
quiz.

I shrug uncomfortably. "Well..."

"You've blown up at everyone around you at the slightest provocation,
and yet you're going to meet with Lisa--the ex-wife who has slandered
your name on national television, need I remind you--*alone*?"

"I..." Helplessly, I shift on my feet again.

"Seemed like a good idea at the time, did it, Spanky?" she asks with
an arched eyebrow as we both begin to move toward the door.

"It's a restaurant," I protest. "I mean, it's a, you know, a public
place."

"Which restaurant?"

"I'm not--" I catch the death-ray look on her face again and I know
there's no arguing with her. My shoulders sag. "The Pinnacle."

"Ooh," CJ practically coos, opening her door and leading me out into
the hall, "they make an *amazing* seafood pasta."

We sail past the bullpen, curious eyes peering out at us through the
glass as we pass by. "Yeah, her first attempt to gain the upper
hand."

"How so?"

"We came here while I was on a business trip once. It's where I
proposed to her."

"Oh, Sam..." CJ's face softens.

"Don't get all girly on me, CJ."

"It's just--"

I grimace, unpleasant memories washing over me as I remember Lisa's
face lighting up at the sight of the diamond ring, her enthusiastic
yes, the hope and joy that had flared in my chest the moment I
realized she was going to marry me. "I know, believe me. I wasn't
thrilled when she suggested it, but...I'm ready for her. Whatever she
comes up with, I'm ready."

We've stopped in the lobby and CJ's face is determined. "What time?"

"You know, you really don't have to be there. I can handle it."

"Yeah, 'cause you've handled things brilliantly so far."

"I'm doing better."

"What time?"

"Give me a little credit here--Okay, 7.30."

She nods emphatically. "That's more like it."

I hesitate. "You know...CJ...as much as I appreciate this, I mean, I
can't really have you sitting at the next table pretending not to
watch us."

"Why not? It could be entertaining."

"I'm sure it could," I smile, "but for one thing, Lisa would
recognize you."

CJ feigns shock. "Really? You flatter me. I never imagined Lisa paid
much attention to the physical characteristics of we lesser mortals."

"What, were you planning on showing up in dark glasses and a baseball
cap?"

"Don't knock it," she deadpans, "it's a good look for me."

"CJ."

"I'll bring a newspaper or something. I'll do the whole cloak-and-
dagger bit. She'll never know I'm there."

"Right." I nod in a manner that clearly communicates I'm less than
convinced. "She'd never notice a six-foot-tall woman in the corner--a
woman with a face that's splashed on every television screen from
here to L.A."

"Sam, you can't honestly tell me you think you should do this alone.
I don't care if you're meeting at Grand Central Station, you
shouldn't do it on your own."

I groan and rub my eyes tiredly. "I can do this, CJ. I'm prepared.
I'm actually kind of looking forward to it in a weird way."

She reaches out with her free hand and squeezes my shoulder. "Just
let me observe, Sam."

"All right," I say after a moment of hesitation. "You can be my
second."

CJ grins impishly. "So 7.30 it is. I'll be there with bells on."

"You know, I'd pay to see that."

She flutters her lashes flirtatiously. "Play your cards right,
Sparky, and that just might happen."

And then she spins on her heel and disappears through the opposite
hallway. I stand there for a moment, watching her go, thinking, for
some bizarre reason, of high school.

My Senior year I was voted Most Likely To Be First in His Class at
Law School, and Most Likely to Settle Down Early, and the memory
suddenly strikes me as too sad for words. I wonder what my classmates
would think if they could see me now, alone and lonely, jobless,
helpless, hopeless, and going through the nastiest divorce
proceedings this side of the Trumps.

<><><>

tbc...

 

 

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