Because you asked for it. ;-) Actually, I was shocked by how many people begged for a sequel to Only Eyes to See, but I decided I couldn't leave everyone hanging like that!
This is very marginally LOTR, since it takes places in this world, in the present day, but since our ol' buddy Sauron is still hanging around, I guess it still fits into that category.
One: Face of a Stranger
1 a : the act of having or taking into control b : control or occupancy of property without regard to ownership c : OWNERSHIP d : control of the ball or puck; also : an instance of having such control (as in football) scored on their first two possessions
2 : something owned, occupied, or controlled : PROPERTY
3 a : domination by something (as an evil spirit, a passion, or an idea) b : a psychological state in which an individual's normal personality is replaced by another
Do you know what terror is?
Terror is looking at the face of a person you've known for more than half your life and seeing someone -- something -- else staring back at you.
Terror is finding out that the struggle you thought was finally over had actually just begun.
Worst of all, though, is realizing that -- for the moment, anyway -- there isn't a goddamn thing you can do about it.
Exhausted beyond comprehension, beyond caring, I fell asleep last night after he was done with me. Sometimes sleep is the only refuge one has.
I awoke this morning to a room in a house I knew almost as well as my own, and a face that should have been familiar but somehow wasn't. Oh, he looked just about the same -- it was my perception of what lay within that had been altered forever.
Brown eyes met mine, and he gave me a slow, mocking smile, the sort of smile I'd never seen on my friend Mike's lips before. "Sleep well?"
"How did you do it?" I asked, not bothering to answer his question. At least he hadn't bothered to remove the T-shirt I had put on before coming to bed last night. Knowing I was decently covered, I sat up and glared at him as he continued to lie there on his side, looking lazy and relaxed.
"Get here! Get in there -- " and I pointed at his temple.
"Caught in your slipstream," he replied. "In a choice between oblivion and this -- " He looked down at himself and frowned slightly; probably he was contrasting the difference between his previous godlike physique and Mike's somewhat underdeveloped torso. Mike had always been a skinny kid. " -- I chose this."
As if from some hideous nightmare, I recalled feeling Sauron's brutal grasp on my wrist as we sank into the lava within Mount Doom. I thought in death I would be free of him -- but I hadn't died. Instead, I had come home.
Unfortunately, I hadn't returned alone.
And now the Dark Lord I thought I had finally vanquished had managed to take up lodging in the body of my best friend, a guy who would no more have lifted a hand against me than run over a box of kittens in the street.
I wanted to cry. I wanted to return to the blackness of sleep, where I could forget that it was Mike's lips that had touched me last night, his body that entered mine, even if it were being controlled by someone else. Instead, I forced myself to stare back at him and asked, "Is he in there? Is he...gone?"
"Not completely. I can feel him struggling against me, but he is weak." He sat up and met my gaze with a sort of horrible frankness. "And everything he knows, I know -- all his knowledge of this world is mine as well. I know what he thinks, what he feels, how he reacts. It will be easy enough to be him, I think."
I listened in mounting horror. No wonder he had deceived me at first -- ever since I had returned to San Marino Sauron had been in Mike's body, speaking with his voice, using the words he would have used. And if he could fool me, who had known him since the sixth grade, then he would be able to fool just about anyone.
"This is a strange world," he went on, his tone musing. "So full of machines, so filled with inventive ways to destroy one another. Saruman would have enjoyed it very much."
"Yeah, I'm sure it's right up your alley, too," I retorted.
"You misunderstand me." He sat up and pushed the covers back; unlike me, he was naked, and I quickly looked away. Even though I knew intellectually it wasn't really Mike here in bed with me, I still didn't want to see his unclothed body.
Staring down at the blanket in my lap, I said, "I doubt that."
He stood and retrieved the blousy white shirt he had worn the night before, from the hobbit-style costume I had made for Mike myself, then drew it on. "It was never about destruction. Why destroy a thing when you can control it instead?"
To that I had no ready answer. I felt sick, but at the same time his words did explain a lot. I still couldn't begin to make sense of what had happened, of what he had done to me, but I had begun to understand that he used me the way he did because he knew that was what would hurt me the most. Murdering someone is so final, after all. If he'd killed me after he murdered Gorendil he would have lost the chance to humiliate me over and over again. I certainly hadn't fooled myself into thinking it was because he truly wanted me or had the slightest ounce of regard for me. And maybe it was also the novelty of simply being able to indulge in such a physical act after millennia in a distorted form that allowed no such diversions.
"Outraged, horror-struck Sarah," he mocked, watching me with eyes that were no longer Mike's. "Filled with anger over the use of her friend. What would you say, Sarah, if I told you I had only given this friend of yours what he wanted all along?"
That was too much. "You're lying," I said, the words forcing their way out from between clenched teeth. "Isn't that what Aragorn called you? The 'father of lies'?"
"What many people call lies are often just inconvenient truths," he replied. "I suppose this is something you simply did not want to know. Perfect Sarah, unattainable Sarah, the one thing he wanted and was afraid to take for his own. Do not call it a lie, not when I have been in his mind and you have not." His dark eyes caught mine, cold and cruel, incongruous in the boyish face. "So moan and weep that I have taken free will from this 'Mike' of yours, but my control of his mind has given him something he would never have otherwise known."
I wanted to scream at him to shut up. I wanted to retort that he had no idea what he was talking about, that he was telling me these horrible lies just to torture me further. But I couldn't. Somehow I knew that this time he was telling the truth. Why bother with falsehoods when the real story can hurt just as much?
With Mike I knew I had always let myself see what I wanted to see. The truth was, although I might have been closer to him than to anyone else except maybe my parents, I'd never had any romantic feelings for him. And since I didn't feel that way about him, I made myself believe that he must feel the same way about me. Otherwise, the tension and the guilt would have been too much.
And Mike, being the gentleman that he was, hadn't pressed the issue. No wonder he'd always made vague comments about there being "plenty of time for that later" when I gently teased him about not having a girlfriend. He could have, too -- despite his general geekiness when it came to Lord of the Rings or Star Wars or whatever particular fanboy diversion claimed his attention at the moment, and despite his overwhelming science brain, he was still cute in a sort of rumpled boyish way. I'd known several girls over the years who had been interested in him and who got rebuffed -- in the politest way, of course -- when they tried to make any advances.
Well, at least now I knew why.
"I suppose you think you're really clever," I said, wanting to direct the conversation away from these uncomfortable revelations. I pushed myself out of bed and went over to the chair where the gown I had worn the night before was still draped. "Escaping death, riding on my coattails back to this cozy world, getting a nice young body to inhabit. How long do you think you're really going to get away with this?"
"As long as necessary. Tell me, Sarah -- if you tried to explain the truth of my presence here to anyone, who would believe you?"
He'd put his finger on the heart of my dilemma. I knew if I tried to tell someone about what had happened to me, most likely they'd send me off for a nice rest somewhere so I could get pumped full of anti-psychotics.
"I'll figure out some way to prove you aren't who you say you are," I replied, but the words sounded feeble even to me.
"Indeed." His gaze moved to the folds of filmy silver-shot material I held in my arms. "What are you doing with that?"
"I'm going home," I said. Suddenly I wanted nothing more than to get out of there. Let Sauron enjoy cleaning up the mess from the party -- if he were going to steal Mike's life, then he could deal with the less pleasant aspects of it as well.
"Are you?" The words were soft, but I could hear the threat in them.
I flung the dress down on the floor and glared across the room at him. At that moment I really didn't care what he did to me. "Yes, I am. I haven't seen my parents in months, and I'm getting tired of these mind games. I want my own house, and my own room with my own bed." Pausing, I took a breath. Before I said the words I hadn't realized how much I just wanted to be me again, Sarah Monaghan, the student who lived at home with her parents, not the girl locked in a battle of wills with the former Lord of Mordor...not even the woman mourning the death of her lover, the man who had cast aside centuries of servitude to Sauron in an attempt to restore freedom to Middle Earth.
Of course my outburst did nothing to move the young man who watched me out of a stranger's eyes. "You are overwrought," he said coldly.
"Oh, I'll give you 'overwrought'!" I burst out, then bent down and snatched up the heavy silver belt from where it had fallen to the floor and had gotten tangled in the fabric of my gown. Without even stopping to think what I was doing, I hurled the length of linked silver medallions at him.
The belt connected against his shoulder and part of his upper chest with an audible smack.
"Ouch!" he yelped, sounding almost like Mike in that instant of shocked surprise.
"Hurt, didn't it?" I asked, glad that finally I had been able to get back even an ounce of the pain he'd inflicted on me. "News flash, Sauron dear -- you're in a mortal body now. You can get hurt just like anyone else."
Although I had hoped that statement would knock some sense into him, I should have known better. Almost before the last word had left my mouth he had flung himself across the room and grasped me by the arm.
"That may be true," he hissed. "But you can be hurt as well. So take care, Sarah."
"The rules are a little different here," I said, wrenching my arm from his grasp. I refused to let him see how shaken I was. "We've got something called the police. You touch me again, and I'll file a report, so help me God."
That took him aback a bit. I could almost see him stopping to think about what I had just said as he accessed the wealth of memories and knowledge in Mike's brain.
"And by the way," I added, "what you pulled on me last night is also illegal around here. I might be forced to mention that, too."
Again I just got a furious silence as he ticked over the unfamiliar information in his mind. Then he smiled unpleasantly. "Perhaps. Although that would be your word against mine -- and I somehow get the impression that a young woman isn't always taken seriously when she accuses a long-time friend of that sort of assault. People lose control at parties, you know...the alcohol, the relaxed atmosphere..."
How I hated him. I hated him for continuing to outmaneuver me. I couldn't even argue with him, because a similar extremely unpleasant incident had taken place at my high school during my junior year. But since the ones being accused consisted of several members of the football team, and a lot of drinking had been going on, no one would back up the girl's story. She'd finally transferred to another school, and I remembered thinking how glad I was that I had decided to stay home that night. Otherwise, it could have been me...
I wouldn't admit that he could be right. Instead I said only, "I don't care. It's not as if I don't have physical evidence against you, if it comes down to it. But I'll leave you alone if you leave me alone." Until I can figure out some way to knock you out of Mike's body and back into whatever hell you deserve, I added mentally.
My words obviously didn't set well with him. His scowl deepened as he glared back at me. "Leave you alone?" he asked. "When you destroyed my Ring, after I had finally regained it after searching for it for centuries? When you lied to me, deceived me, assaulted me? No, Sarah, I'm afraid you don't understand me very well. If my only pleasure in this world is to come from causing you torment, then that is my goal." He stepped closer as I stared at him in numb agony. "And I think I know best how to continue that torment." With those words he reached out and ran one finger down my cheek; I shut my eyes briefly at the feel of his flesh against my mine. It brought back memories of too many other times when his touch had been far less gentle.
"I'll fight you," I whispered.
"Go ahead. I may enjoy it." By now he was so close I could feel the heat of his breath against my cheek. "But know this, Sarah Monaghan -- do not think that this is the only body I can inhabit. Although it pains you to see your friend used so, how much worse would it be if I were to move on to someone else...perhaps your father?"
The horror and revulsion which rose up in me at that statement seemed to have destroyed my power of speech. I could only stare at him, shaking, as he continued, still with that repulsive smile distorting Mike's usually friendly mouth, "That might be too much even for you, wouldn't it? To have me touch you with your father's hands, your father's mouth -- "
"Stop it!" I screamed, putting my hands to my ears. God, what had I ever done to deserve this?
To my surprise, he actually did break off after my outburst. For a few seconds he watched me closely, maybe to make sure I wasn't going to put forth any more protests. But that last threat had almost undone me. I hadn't thought there could be anything worse than allowing Sauron -- even Sauron in Mike's body -- to keep abusing me, but he'd destroyed that notion pretty effectively.
"We understand one another," he said at last.
"Yes," I replied dully. Anything to stop this confrontation, to get me out of here for a while so I could try to put the shattered fragments of my life back together.
He nodded, looking smug. How I wished I could smack him across the face, hit him hard enough to knock Sauron's possessing spirit right out of Mike's slender frame, but I knew that was unlikely.
"Best put that gown back on," he said. "We wouldn't want your parents to think you were up to anything unusual last night, would we?"
"'We'?" I echoed. My brain felt as if only half its neurons were firing.
"Of course. I will come with you." A look of unholy glee lit up his eyes. "I can't wait to meet your parents."
Even with Sauron/Mike's unwelcome presence at my side, I couldn't help feeling a sudden rush of relief as I made my way up the front steps to my house. It all looked so normal, so unchanged. In my own mind months had passed, but here only one night had gone by. The rows of roses bordering the front walk blazed away as only roses in Southern California can still do during late September, and the house as a whole looked as friendly and white and Cape Cod-y as it always had. I know in other parts of Southern California the architecture has been overrun with tract after tract of cookie-cutter "Spanish-style" houses, but many of the homes in San Marino were built in the 1920s and '30s and reveled in all sorts of styles: Colonial, bungalow, Tudor (like Mike's place), Mediterranean.
I could feel my throat grow thick with emotion as I looked at my house, with its blue front door and shutters and flame-colored roses gleaming in the morning sun. But I choked the tears back -- this was going to be difficult enough without my mother noticing my red nose and puffy eyes.
Sauron/Mike -- oh, hell, I'm just going to refer to him as "Smike" from here on out -- also looked up at the house with some curiosity. Oh, Mike had been over to my place hundreds of times, so of course Sauron would have had memories to access, but memories are never quite the same as experiencing something for yourself. Which was probably why he had tagged along, although I'm sure the discomfort factor had quite a bit to do with it as well.
I fumbled in my pouch for the key to the front door, then let myself in, with Smike following behind. Since it was a warm but not hot day, the windows were open, letting in a breeze that smelled of fresh-mown grass. No doubt my mother had gotten on my father's case to mow the backyard. We had gardeners do the front, but my dad didn't want them in back -- I think he worried that they'd do something to the über-schmancy barbecue he bought at the beginning of the summer.
"I'm home!" I called out. I said the same thing pretty much every time I came home, but this time the words carried so much more meaning to me. To be honest, somehow it felt as if I'd been gone far longer than the several months I'd spent in Middle Earth. Could it have been such a short amount of time? Could I have only known Gorendil for a span of weeks that could be counted on both hands?
The ache hit me again, and I had to clench my jaw against the pain of it. Why couldn't it have been him inside Mike's body? Oh, I would have missed Gorendil's face, the calm gray eyes, the scar that marred his cheek, but at least I would still have had Gorendil's soul. We could have had each other.
But instead --
My mother stuck her head out of her office, pushing the glasses she used for reading or working on the computer back up on her head as she glanced out into the foyer to see Smike and me standing there. For some reason she did look slightly different, until I remembered that she'd had her hair cut and some highlights put in just two days before the party, and I still hadn't gotten used to her new look.
"I was wondering when you were going to make it back here," she remarked. "Overdid it last night, Sarah?"
She sounded less than thrilled with me, and I wondered what sort of story Smike had fed her when he called the evening before. For some reason that irritated me to no end, considering that I had drunk very moderately at the party. Was it my fault that I had tripped and fallen into an alternate dimension?
"Well, you know what they say -- don't drink and drive," I said lamely, knowing that it was no use to protest that I hadn't been drunk at all.
Her gaze moved past me to Smike. "Thanks for giving her some crash space, Mike. We've got some strata left over from breakfast -- why don't you two go help yourselves?"
"Well, actually -- " I began, about to tell her that Mike was just dropping me off and that he had to get back home and finish cleaning up.
"Sounds great," Smike cut in, and then he hesitated and looked down at the floor, doing such a good imitation of Mike when he's feeling awkward that I couldn't help staring at him. "But there's something we -- I mean, Sarah and I -- wanted to talk to you and Mr. Monaghan about. Is he here?"
"Yes, he's out back." She looked from Mike to me and back, still with the pleasant half-smile on her lips. Mike had always been a favorite of my parents; if I had a dollar for every time they remarked "I don't know why you don't go out with him" I'd have enough money to buy a new car. "This sounds serious, Mike."
"Well, sort of." His puppy-brown eyes looked guileless. "Maybe we can wait for you in the living room?"
"All right." My mother looked slightly puzzled, but she came out into the hallway and moved on into the dining room, where a set of French doors opened up onto the deck. Her voice drifted back to us. "There's some sun tea in the fridge if you're thirsty -- "
After she had disappeared I turned to Smike and demanded, "What the hell is going on?"
"You'll see. But in the meantime, could you get me some of that tea? It sounded delicious."
"You probably don't even know what tea is," I muttered under my breath, but I went ahead and stalked into the kitchen and fetched a pair of glasses out of the cupboard, then filled them with ice from the refrigerator door and poured out some tea from the flowered glass container that was a permanent fixture in the fridge during the summer. Shoving Smike's glass into his hand, I continued on into the living room and sat down on the couch, hoping that choosing the larger piece of furniture over the love seat would give him the idea that I didn't want him sitting too close to me. Of course he didn't take the hint, but instead positioned himself only a few inches away. I couldn't shift my weight without worrying about my thigh brushing against his.
"Use a coaster," I snapped. "My mother will kill you if you get rings on her coffee table."
Without comment Smike leaned forward and picked up a coaster decorated with a copy of French wine label and set the glass of iced tea down on it. The whole time a tiny smile played around the corner of his mouth, and I knew he must have something horrible planned or he wouldn't have been smirking like that.
I lifted the tea to my mouth and drank, but even though the cool liquid felt good going down, I barely tasted it. What the hell was he up to? What could he be planning that involved speaking to both my parents?
My mother entered the living room, with my father just a pace or so behind her. He looked sweaty and mussed, graying dark hair sticking to his brow, the front of his faded polo shirt blotched with perspiration. Obviously he had been out back tending to the yard; he always got that irritated expression while doing "chores," although this particular task, as my mother always managed to point out, he'd brought on himself.
"Mike, Sarah," he said briefly, before settling down on the loveseat next to my mother, who had just sat down as well.
"Mr. Monaghan," Smike said formally.
They sat there gazing back at us, my nice, normal, attractive parents, a couple who could have been the poster children for healthy upper-middle-class Southern California living. Really, the whole scene looked like something out of some Lifetime made-for-TV movie, right down to the carefully arranged Sheraton-style furniture in the living room. For half a second I almost expected some set designer to pop in and move the bowl of flowers on the side table a fraction of an inch to the left.
"So what's up?" my father asked. "Not that I don't mind the break from the mowing, but -- "
"Yes, Mike, why don't you tell them?" I asked, with poisonous sweetness. The suspense was killing me.
Unruffled, he turned toward my parents, practically radiating friendly awkwardness. "Well, this is sort of tough, and maybe a little unexpected -- "
"It's all right, Mike," my mother said. Her voice was warm and encouraging; years of teaching high school hadn't jaded her yet, and she had a knack of relating to kids our age and younger, a way about her that always affirmed that she was the adult without being remotely condescending. "You can tell us -- haven't we been practically family for years?"
At that he smiled. "You're right, Mrs. Monaghan. Only now, well, I guess we won't be practically family anymore." He paused; only I caught the swift sidelong gaze he shot me, one of triumph.
He couldn't. He wouldn't --
Still with that boyish clumsiness that somehow managed to be endearing -- if you didn't know what was actually motivating it -- he leaned forward and announced, "Last night I asked Sarah to marry me. And, well -- she said yes."