Notes: Written without the benefit of a beta, as per The Lyric Wheel Rulez, so all mistakes are all mine. I've taken some liberties with what might have happened after the prisoners' post-evacuation return to Oz. For instance, don't you think they would have given Toby his old job back eventually? Yeah, me too...
Dedicated to Mav, for making me do it. : )
He sat on the cafeteria bench, a tray of food on the table in front of him, and fed himself. He sat there surrounded by the same people as yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that, and he ate. What else was he going to do? It was that time of day. Noon. The morning's work was finished, the work of the afternoon would begin in half an hour. It was the time when he was expected to sit quietly and eat. Was there any point in not complying?
The voices of the people around him blended into a steady current of white noise. If he adjusted his attention in precisely the right way, he could hear none of the words being spoken -- none of the petty concerns, none of the complaints, none of the gossip, not even that of the people sitting on either side or in front of him. He had discovered he preferred it that way; he routinely chose the distraction of empty sound over that containing any kind of meaning. The less he felt obligated to engage with the pathetic facsimile of a world around him, the better. It was how he managed to make each day and night flow seamlessly into the next, and it actually tended to happen relatively quickly. He would pass the remainder of his sentence that way, if he could manage it.
As he inclined his head to take a bite of food, he caught a glimpse of the sleeve of the person next to him. It was the sleeve of a gray sweatshirt, pushed slightly up a forearm. He turned away quickly, but it was too late, and his mind had already filled in the rest of the details: the pale skin that wanted to be olive but never saw the sun, the coarse black hair, the strong muscles, the bones of the wrist, the veins and tendons tracing paths to graceful, powerful fingers. A sharp longing took form in his gut and bloomed outward, spreading until it constricted his throat and he couldn't swallow the food in his mouth. He waited, breathing deeply through his nose, until the feeling had passed -- until he had successfully pushed it into a corner and replaced it with the usual feeling of apathy, reinforced with an instinctive drive toward self-preservation that kept him only as aware of his surroundings as he needed to be. Since returning to Oz after three months in Lardner, it was the only emotional state he could tolerate comfortably.
He resumed eating. The arm he'd seen belonged to a new inmate who'd been in Oz for...maybe a week now? He wasn't sure. Well, anyway, long enough to learn that Tobias Beecher was a reasonably safe person to sit next to, all things considered. He didn't cause trouble, and he no longer attracted it the way he used to. The few Aryans left in Oz disliked him, of course, but not very enthusiastically. Given the opportunity to see him dead, they obviously wouldn't say "no," but they seemed unwilling to put any real effort into doing the job themselves. These truly were "half-assed Aryans"; the others were all gone. Chris had seen to that with the multiple homicide that had been his parting gift to him.
That gift had enabled Toby to maintain his baseline state of mind and still stay alive. He had no further need of alliances or attachments, and he avoided situations that would earn him any new enemies. His reputation preceded him just enough to take care of the rest. Life in Oz continued around him in the same way it always had, but he now saw himself as not much more than a phantom on its periphery. The political machinations, the alliances, the brawls, the occasional friendships -- they all simply formed a flat backdrop to his day-to-day life, like a plywood landscape in a stage set. It provided a sense of place, but he didn't interact with it.
There was only one thing that was consistently able to intrude on this new arrangement and pierce the barrier between him and Oz. He took a quick look at the man sitting next to him, now an ordinary person of no significance -- someone who just happened to be wearing a gray sweatshirt with the sleeves pushed up on his arms. But he knew it was only a matter of time before something else had the same effect.
/If I die, don't forget me.../
Yes, this is all just exactly as Chris would have wanted it.
Benjamin Taylor Stone. When he turned the parts of the name over in his mind, he felt a twinge of something he couldn't and didn't want to identify, so he moved on quickly, rapidly typing the details of his case file and not giving the name any further thought. He read the first few sentences of Sister Pete's scrawled notes, then looked back at the screen, typing them from memory.
Another new prisoner, and apparently he was in Em City. Toby couldn't immediately think of a face to go with the name. Judging from the name itself, though, the only gangs this guy was likely to be joining were the Aryans or the Homeboys. There had been a time when he would have thought a lot more carefully about that, when he would have used his position to carefully assess this man as a possible danger. Those days were over now. Well...almost over. He skimmed through the remainder of Sister Pete's assessment and saw a long history of heroin use that probably meant he wouldn't be accepted into the Brotherhood anytime soon. Of course, if he was pretty enough, he could end up serving a different purpose...
That last, unwelcome thought lingered for too long and threatened to distract him. He closed his eyes and shook his head, as if to clear it, and then quickly continued typing. He read the words on the page but didn't let them touch him; it was an easy adjustment to make, back to his default state of consciousness. After all, it was an adjustment he'd been practicing for months now. As far as coping mechanisms went, it beat drugs and alcohol.
"Tobias, do you have something you'd like to say to me?"
Sister Pete had left her desk and materialized next to him, one hand resting on the table beside his keyboard. Her fingers tapped a quick, uneven rhythm that served to broadcast her mood precisely. She was both nervous and upset, and, judging from the tone of her voice, probably a little worried about him. Toby stopped typing and looked up at her.
"Something I'd like to say?" He searched his recent memory for some interaction between them that might require explanation. "No, not that I...no."
Sister Pete sighed wearily. "Where were you yesterday afternoon?"
"I was here. Working."
"I was..." Where? Where had he been? He wasn't often required to account for his whereabouts at a specific time. Had he been watching TV in the common area, or had that been the day before? Had he spent the hours after work reading in his pod? Napping? He did remember a recent afternoon spent on his bunk, falling in and out of sleep, periodically opening his eyes and blinking in the light, hearing laughter and conversations shouted from one end of the common area to the other. But that could have been two days ago, or even three.
He focused on her again. "I'm not sure, actually," he said with a small, self-deprecating laugh. "Did we...have an appointment or something?"
"Yes, Tobias, we did have an appointment. You missed yesterday's addictions counseling group." She paused for a few seconds, and when she continued her voice was less stern. "I know I don't have to tell you that technically you're required to attend because of the...circumstances of your parole violation. Now, I'm not going to report this to the warden, but..." She trailed off with a quiet sigh.
Toby snorted, then laughed. "Right. I'm sorry to have to be the one to break it to you, but I don't think I need your group to help me with the circumstances that led to my parole violation. See, that particular problem has already taken care of itself. Remember?"
Pete was silent, which Toby thought was probably the only appropriate response. He knew she didn't want to encourage such cold feelings in him, and yet she really had no valid argument against them. Sensing that she was gathering her thoughts and preparing to speak again, he forced a blank, emotionless expression onto his face; the last thing he wanted was for her to get an urge to try to draw him out and make him talk about his emotions. As he turned away from her, he found himself looking at the chair in front of Pete's desk.
That's where Chris would have sat, he thought.
He tried to preserve his emotional detachment from the thought, but it was already slipping away. He was almost able to see Chris in that chair; he must have spent hours in it during the course of his sentence here. After Toby, Pete was probably the person in Oz Chris had been closest to. And, as with Toby, their relationship had also started as nothing but a lie.
It was too easy to imagine the things Chris would have done as he sat in that chair and weaved himself into the fabric of her confidence. It was also easy to imagine how Pete must have responded. She probably wouldn't even have noticed that a change was overtaking her until one day, maybe, he didn't appear when he was supposed to, and then she would have suddenly realized that she had spent every minute until that moment rehearsing the kind and witty things she would say to make him smile and the exact way in which she would smile back, how she would sit, what she would wear and how many buttons of her sweater she could get away with leaving undone without seeming too obvious.
He knew what Chris had done to her, because he'd done it to him, too. He knew what it was like to have your mind and body subtly and painlessly rewired until it required Chris's presence to go on working properly. And what had made him think that things were any different now? Because he wasn't just imagining Chris sitting in that chair; his mind was once again filling in all the necessary blanks, replacing the empty space in front of him with Chris's body, slouched insolently, one elbow resting on Sister Pete's desk. His eyes were actually seeing it. When he took a breath, he could smell that hot, hypermasculine smell that had sometimes been the first thing to wake him in the night, even before he heard him whisper or felt his hands on him. If he reached out, he would be able to press the palm of his hand against the skin of Chris's left shoulder, skin that had always struck him as so strangely, incongruously soft. He was going to feel it against his hand again. All he needed to do was reach out and touch it...
Part of him wanted to close his eyes and make this go away, to get rid of this laid-bare sensation, this feeling of susceptibility. The contrast was too stark; he wanted things to revert back to their usual, anesthetized state. But another part of him clung tightly to this with both fists -- the part that represented the person he used to be, still buried somewhere inside him. The guy who fell in love and forged friendships and did his best to make Oz seem like life. For all the good it had ever done him.
And just like that, it was gone again. Chris was gone. The decision had been made for him. His heart was still thumping anxiously, but all he saw now was an empty chair. Sister Pete moved in front of him, trying to capture his attention; he took one last deep breath through his nose but was able to smell nothing but the faint scent of Pete's hand lotion.
"Listen. Never mind about yesterday's session. I'm concerned about you."
"You don't need to be."
"Oh, I think I'll be the judge of that." Her voice had taken on a quiet yet commanding tone. "I have the authority to require you to attend counseling sessions -- private counseling sessions -- and I intend to use it. I refuse to watch you withdraw inside yourself like this and not do anything about it. Not this time. Not again." Her small hands chopped through the air in front of her as she struggled to make her point.
Toby shrugged and nodded. "Fine." Fighting against the idea would only make her more determined, and this discussion needed to end now. He could feel himself hardening, a protective buffer of neutrality again starting to form around him, and he didn't want the process interrupted by a heart-to-heart with an overly concerned and meddlesome Sister Pete.
She continued to talk, outlining the things the two of them would be covering in their future sessions, reassuring him that this wasn't meant to be any sort of punishment, etcetera -- but he was already elsewhere, nodding agreeably and murmuring his assent while idly contemplating the return to the solitude of his pod, now only a couple of hours away.
He knew it couldn't last forever, having a pod entirely to himself. Sooner or later, McManus would either move another inmate in or move Toby out and into AdSeg, where he would remain while on trial for Chris's murder. The prosecutors were still slowly gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses, after the process had been interrupted suddenly by the evacuation of Oz. The case had never been of particularly high priority, obviously, because of the identity of the victim. Many in the office of the District Attorney would have been just as happy to do the job of killing Chris themselves, albeit in a more carefully controlled and state-approved manner.
In truth, he doubted he would ever be charged. There were too many people willing to testify to Toby's character and Chris's lack thereof, too many people with knowledge of Chris's dangerous, all-encompassing obsession with him. His rejection of Chris in those last few weeks had been both brutal and public. It wasn't a stretch for those whose testimony would be considered trustworthy -- Sister Pete, McManus, a few hacks who had been at the scene -- to believe that Chris had thrown himself off that balcony. The fact that many of the prisoners were somewhat less convinced was more or less immaterial.
Whatever ended up happening in the future, at the moment he was content to enjoy the relative peace of an empty pod, where the only creaking of the bunks was his and the sound didn't evoke any specific memories, anyway. All of the beds in Em City were new and constructed differently from the old ones. They felt different and hadn't even had a chance to develop a distinctive smell. His bed was reasonably safe that way.
Other aspects of the pod were less safe. The sink, for instance, and the mirror over it. He almost always needed to close his eyes as he brushed his teeth, or else stare down into the drain. The mirror, the bed reflected in it -- those were things that could transform his entire emotional state if he wasn't careful. They were doorways through which Chris was able to breeze right into his mind and make himself at home; once there, locked with him in his pod with no interruptions, he often wouldn't leave without a fight.
Toby rolled to his side on the bunk and let the book he was reading dangle from his hand. He still felt slightly off-balance from his earlier conversation with Sister Pete. It meant another crimp in his routine, and he would need to somehow adjust around it. It wouldn't be easy, dealing on a weekly basis with her dogged attempts to plumb the depths of his consciousness and force him to expose his feelings to her. He thought it was probably important to make a show of complying, though, especially if she ended up having to testify in court on his behalf. He would sort out a strategy when the actual appointment was approaching; for now, he wanted nothing more than to clear his head completely and fall asleep as soon as possible.
The lights were still on, but he tossed his book to the empty bunk beneath him, closed his eyes, and began trying to relax each of his muscles, one group at a time, the way the nurses had taught him to in the hospital after his arms and legs had been broken. He had worked his way up to his hamstrings when a hack's baton slammed against the wall of a pod a few doors down from his. Toby's eyes shot open, and the first thing he noticed was the white t-shirt thrown carelessly over the back of the chair next to his bed.
It almost always happened that way. Most times, he never even saw it coming. Something about the shirt, the precise way it had fallen, reminded him both of Chris and, in a brief flash of insight, of why he had missed his appointment with Sister Pete the previous afternoon. The shirt had been lying there for days now. Why hadn't he picked it up yet? He was annoyed that such a small thing, such a mundane detail, could have such a profound effect on him, but of course that didn't change anything. Chris was now standing in the middle of the room, shirtless, a gauze bandage taped to his chest. He was standing there reaching for him; he wanted to touch Toby, to take off his clothes and hold him close and taste his mouth again, but he was trying hard at the same time to restrain himself, to be sympathetic and unselfish. It was a small-scale illustration of the central problem between the two of them -- the inherent contradiction between how completely Chris needed to possess him and the life Toby himself felt he needed to lead. Those two needs may never have been entirely compatible, but seeing him this way made Toby think of how hard Chris had tried to change that.
He lay there and looked at him, watching to see what he would do next. This, of course, is what he had done yesterday afternoon, losing all track of time in the process. Tomorrow, outside the pod and in a less emotional state, he might think carefully about how real Chris was to him at this moment and wonder whether he should worry about his sanity. Chris was solid flesh and bone in front of him, giving off bodily warmth and electricity. He knew it had to be an illusion, that his mind was once again creating stimulus for his benefit, but how did that really matter? Whether Chris was actually there in front of him or not, these were the strongest emotions he'd felt all day -- a sharp, aching reminder that he was still capable of having them.
"Chris..." he whispered, wondering how it would play into the illusion, if at all. It didn't seem to have any effect; Chris just kept looking at him in the same way. Toby realized he wanted him to stop looking at him that way; his instinct was suddenly to jump down off the bed and shake Chris to his senses. His body twitched, wanting to act, even as he told himself the instinct was ridiculous. Shake what to its senses? There's nobody there.
Minutes passed. An hour. Two. Toby lay in bed and continued to watch, having imaginary conversations and heated arguments, remembering specific moments between the two of them -- some of obvious significance, some completely inconsequential. Chris kicking the underside of his mattress to distract him from his reading. Waking from half sleep to feel Chris's fingers brushing gently through his hair. A long conversation they'd had about Slaughterhouse Five, which Chris had read after he had seen it in Toby's footlocker, claiming it was only because he had nothing better to do. The way his eyes darted around the chessboard as he calculated his next move, while at the same time clearly not wanting to seem to care too much about the outcome of the game.
When the buzzer sounded and the lights went out, Toby's first involuntary thought was "Now...now we can really touch each other." He glanced outside the pod and saw that no hacks were nearby. When he looked back, Chris was gone.
The surge of anger that followed took Toby by surprise. He looked around him with a newly intense hatred for everything he saw, for the tiny room with its transparent walls and industrial fixtures and furniture that would be surrounding him for God knows how many more years. And for what? He wanted Chris to appear again, so that he could at least direct his anger where it belonged. "Why are you the one who's gone?" he thought. He clenched his hands into fists as he considered the fact he should be tucking his kids into bed right about now. Chris should be the one lying in this cell, wondering where Toby was and what he was doing, conjuring up images of him in his mind. Instead, Chris was free of Oz, and Toby was still here. Chris had brought Toby back and then left him. There was nothing more to be done or said, no chance for some future reconciliation or clarification of actions or motives. Chris had taken it all away with him.
He became even angrier as he remembered how, just a couple of minutes ago, he had been thinking about touching Chris again. Oh God, somewhere, wherever he was, Chris was just loving that. He swung his legs off the bed and jumped to the floor, his agitation too intense to be taken lying down. Raking his fingers through his hair, he paced once across the pod, then back to the bed again. Would Chris ever relinquish his power over him? Would there ever be a morning when he would wake up and find that Chris no longer had the ability to manipulate his feelings at will?
He turned away from his bed and saw the white t-shirt lying draped over the back of the chair. How stupid, how completely idiotic, that something like that could have started all this. It was just an old shirt he had taken off and tossed aside, nothing more. He began to reach for it, then stopped. Wouldn't it be a kind of defeat to move it now? An admission of his own weakness, of his susceptibility to Chris's influence? He turned and walked quickly to the sink and began to brush his teeth, having made up his mind to leave the shirt exactly where it was, a defiant affirmation of his sanity. Really, there was no need to move it. Not yet, anyway. Not quite yet.
He walked into the cafeteria and found an empty seat at a neutral table. He met the eyes of none of the people already sitting there, and he didn't greet any of the men who sauntered over to sit near him once he had begun to eat. They all knew better than to try to engage him in conversation. As always, he remained aware of their presence in much the same way that he was aware of the table in front of him, the bench beneath him, and walls enclosing the room. They were just neutral features of his surroundings that caused him neither pain nor pleasure.
Pain... He had a sudden recollection of recent pain and anger, now faint to the point of being barely detectable, like a diminishing echo, but he couldn't put his finger on the exact source. More importantly, he didn't want to. He knew something had upset him last night -- a dream, maybe? -- but he didn't have any desire to pursue its source. There was still a lot of daily routine to get through; it was important that he preserve his complete detachment.
A fight broke out across the room, somewhere behind him. He heard shouting and cheering, trays clattering to the floor, blows being struck. Instinct told him he was far enough away from it to not have to worry about his own well being, and he continued to eat as those sitting around him twisted in their seats and craned their necks to get a better view. They were talking to each other in excited voices, but Toby wasn't listening. Yes, things went on here, inside Oz and outside, the same as always. None of it touched him. Somewhere, his surviving children went to school and laughed and played on swing sets, far away from where he or anyone else could cause them pain; his mother still woke up each morning and made breakfast, alone, for only herself; grass grew over the graves of his wife, his son, his dad, his friend Said. The cities grew, the rivers flowed, babies were born, people went to work, to cocktail parties, to PTSA meetings, they fell in love, got married, and eventually died. To dwell too long on any of it could only be counterproductive. In the end, it would only cause him further pain.
Instead, he concentrated on each bite of food, chewing methodically and thoroughly, staring down at his tray. In about 20 minutes or so, the work of the afternoon would begin; a couple of hours after that, he could return to the solitude of his pod. He was already counting the minutes.
"I'm Still Here," by Vertical Horizon
I found the pieces in my hand
They were always there
It just took some time for me to understand You gave me words I just can't say
So if nothing else
I'll just hold on while you drift away
Cause everything you wanted me to hide Is everything that makes me feel alive
The cities grow the rivers flow
Where you are I'll never know
But I'm still here
If you were right and I was wrong
Why are you the one who's gone
And I'm still here
I'm still here
You've seen the ashes in my heart
You smile the widest when I cry inside and my insides blow apart
I try to wear another face
Just to make you proud
Just to make you put me in my place
But everything you wanted from me
Is everything that I could never be
Maybe tonight it's gonna be alright
I will get better
Maybe today it's gonna be okay
I will remember
I held the pieces of my soul
I was shattered
And I wanted you to come and make me whole Then I saw you yesterday
But you didn't notice
You just walked away
Cause everything you wanted me to hide Is everything that makes me feel alive
The lights go out the bridges burn
Once you go you can't return
But I'm still here
Remember how you used to say
I'd be the one to run away
But I'm still here
I'm still here