LIGHTS UP, LIGHTS OUT
by Gina Collum
Bzzz-- lights up-- on your feet, gentlemen!
In the winter, Oswald's dawn preceded true sunrise. "Dawn" found Tim McManus already within Emerald City, striding across the pit of his pet cellblock, red pen clipped to his collar. When Tim entered the pod, Beecher was half-dressed and scratching his scruffy beard.
"It's Keller," said Beecher, before Tim could get a word in. He leaned over the sink, face drawn.
"I'm sorry. He went last night."
"Yeah," Tim said. You had to wonder what kind of passion drove these men, inmates who'd sooner see their lovers dead than with someone else. "Better line up for count." As Beecher brushed by, Tim added, "If there's anything I can do--"
"I know where to find you."
Tim legged it upstairs to his office, eager to shut the door between himself and count, to escape his trick memory's response to the shouted numbers: names, faces, rap sheets, disciplinary and medical records, jobs and relatives and names of pets (where applicable)--
97P904? Sure, Ryan O'Reily, life plus forty plus et cetera; survived cancer only to become terminally obsessed with Gloria Nathan.
01P882? Tom "TJ" Perkins, transferred from overcrowded Lardner a few years into a ten-year hitch for aggravated assault; his Dachshund, Marcus, now lived with his aunt in the city.
97B412? Tobias Beecher, ex- drunk driver, up for parole soon and likely to make it this time; classic addictive personality now compounded by post-traumatic stress.
98K514? Christopher Keller, armed robbery and half a dozen other charges; career con artist jumped feet-first into one of Oz's more Byzantine personal feuds and finally died of it. Keller, 98K514: yet another number Tim would never hear at count again, another file he'd have to red-stamp DECEASED and try to forget, another unredeemed corpse, gurneyed this morning from Oz's infirmary to its morgue like the tail the serpent ate-- eternally its own.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"Oh yeah?" Chris said, and sat on the sink, and Beecher reached for Chris's razor--
Reached for it now, pocketing it just as the hacks came in. They got everything else, clearing out Chris's belongings before Beecher could take a last (depressingly brief) inventory: skin mags, skin- tight shirts, jeans, boots, shaving kit, chess set.
Then Beecher's cell became his alone.
Later he stood in the shower room and reflected on Chris's razor-- plastic and stainless steel, like everything else in here that wasn't stone or Plexiglas. If you needed a shank, you could take one of these apart, with a little elbow grease and ingenuity, though Oz- issue anything was designed to prevent just that.
I don't need a weapon, Beecher reminded himself, and resumed the careful maintenance of his beard sculpture. In the mirror he saw Perkins and his scrawny crackhead buddy Jonesson enter, wearing their towels. Perkins took a long look in Beecher's direction, almost an eyefuck, but moved on before Beecher was forced to do anything about it.
Schillinger's knife, the one that cut Chris open (killed him, you motherfucker), had been a letter-opener from the mailroom, of course.
If only Schillinger wasn't already dead.
As Beecher picked up his kit and turned away from the mirror, he met Perkins's gaze again. He and Jonesson were recent transfers, nobody Beecher'd gone any rounds with before, but Perkins had that shit-stirrer's look.
If you needed a weapon--
My parole hearing is coming, Beecher told himself firmly, and exited to the pit.
I don't need a shank.
"Oh yeah?" Chris said, and braced himself against the sink.
"Unless you don't trust me," Beecher replied with a white sliver smile. After betrayal and counter-betrayal, it was a nasty way to tease, but beard burn left him in a nasty mood.
Chris shrugged. "Go ahead." He lifted his chin, and Beecher scraped away lather and stubble, remembering the one time Schillinger had done this for him. Like every step in their pre-eye-cutting dance, the gesture had been one of tenderness perverted into violation, his terror Schillinger's goal, chill blade licking Beecher's jaw and neck.
With Chris, every violation was perverted into tenderness. It all led to the same number of bruises, broken bones, corpses. To Beecher on his stomach, twisting his fists into the sheets. In the end, he'd taken Chris because he'd learned to crave what Schillinger dealt him.
"Oh yeah?" the other boy said, and slumped into the sofa, causing it to dip in the middle, causing Toby to slide downhill and fall against his frat brother's side. Toby's cheek bumped his, and then their mouths touched-- what was his name, a nonentity of a student, two pledge-classes behind Toby, and nobody he would have noticed except for that smile, upstairs in OAK House after a debate team victory, beer and giggles and groping, and, fuck, what if the other guys see us?
The Chase, that was what they called him; after a while, Chase put his hand down there, and Toby, cupping Chase's face in both hands, gasped and jerked against the boy. Chase's tongue trembled in Toby's mouth. He groaned and let go just enough for Toby to stir, to leap backward off the sofa, wipe his mouth, zip himself back in his pants.
Chase drew air, blinking at his spattered hand. Toby straightened his debate-team tie and walked out.
"Toby?" Chris snapped his fingers in front of Beecher's face. "Hey. You with me?"
Beecher shook his head.
Well, this isn't about Schillinger, after all. This is about us. About me.
"Yeah," he said, and was surprised by how easily he smiled. "I'm with you."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Laughing, a penguin-like fellow stumbles around a corner, trying to hold up his dinner companion, a tall woman in a slinky sapphire gown.
They step wide over the curb. A horn honks-- tires screech. Shrieking, the woman runs to the opposite sidewalk, the man right behind her.
Safe again, they look at each other and laugh more.
The woman puts her hand over her mouth and attempts to muffle her giggles while the man guides her to the car, a black Mercedes. An indeterminate time later, the Mercedes turns a corner on a hillside-- too fast, too wide-- striking a Corolla in the other lane. Both cars slip over the edge and crash into the willows at the bottom of the hill.
Thirty seconds pass.
The driver of the Mercedes touches his companion's shoulder. Half conscious, she moans, her large larynx bobbing.
He unbuckles himself, unlocks the door, and sways to his feet.
Got to exchange insurance info.
But as he approaches the other car, he discovers that the driver of the Corolla isn't wearing a seat belt. The stranger's head pokes through the windshield, his blood streaking red across the silver hood.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ His glasses slipped down his nose. Jase pushed them back into place and tried to focus on the tired-looking correctional officer instead of the bars, the locks, the aloof stone arching of each gateway passing over and swallowing him up. Oswald was designed to induce specific psychological reactions, he figured. Specifically, guilt and fear. Shrug it off, Jase.
"--This person will be your sponsor in Em City. You will pair off as follows: Larson, Jackson; Carruthers, Beecher."
He looked over to the gate where the two prisoners, an African- American and a Caucasian, had entered. His fellow arrival, Larson, exchanged a cryptic homeboy handshake with the African-American. The other prisoner hung back, eyeing Jase peculiarly. This... Beecher... was taller than himself (no surprise there) and wore a forked beard. Handsome, in a freakish, "I might cut your ear off" way.
"Hello," Jase said. "I used to know a Beecher back in school."
The inmate glanced at his outstretched hand. "Yeah. In the Omega Alpha Kappas. You hung out with Harris Fillmore's crowd. Name's Jase, right?"
"You can't be--" Jase pushed his glasses into place and tried to see the face under the beard. Bones too sharp, hairline ebbing from the temples, and overall the body too well-defined, yet... "Toby? Tobias Beecher?"
Now Toby took his hand.
Jase leaned toward him and said, "Christ, man, what the hell are you doing in here?"
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Tim slammed the rubber stamp on Keller's file, leaving a mess of red ink seeping into the paper. Some ink always got on his fingers and shirt, too.
He poured a short one from the bottle in the filing cabinet, leaving a magenta thumbprint on the label, and took a short breather before diving back into the IN box. Half an hour to lunch, and he still hadn't caught up on yesterday's paperwork, which he'd neglected due to the deaths in the library and the near-riot in the phone room, not to mention the earlier excitement with the malfunctioning washing machines.
Schillinger's file wasn't his problem, thank God, but here was a note from the accounting office demanding an explanation for the electricians' invoices from last week, and do reply in triplicate *if you please*.
Damned bean counters. I'm here to help people-- or die trying-- not to shuffle purchase orders and expense reports. Do sit on your thumb and spin, *if you fucking please*.
He sighed, rubbed his aching eyes, and paced around his desk to the window.
Ah, there was Poet at the gate, with the Larson kid. (04L236, Kevin Larson, second-degree... stop it, Tim.) Hill would've given Larson a better start, but Tim had matched Hill up with the last black arrival, and he couldn't keep Poet out of rotation. You had to give a guy another chance.
And here came Beecher with his fellow alumnus. (04C237, Jason Carruthers III... stop it, just stop it.) A natural assignment, unlike most of Beecher's previous cellmates. Pat yourself on the back, Tim. Any time you can.
Might even do Beecher some good, give him something to think about besides the not-quite-buried matter of Schillinger and Keller.
Come on, Beecher. Remember what you used to be.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"Look at the fat little bitch."
"Fuck off," Beecher said, ushering Carruthers to his pod. Christ, I hope we get there before he pees his pants.
That the Chase should have stepped out of memory, whole and real, unchanged except for a slight thinning of his mouse-brown hair... call it a random universe's pretense at pattern, or call it God's design masquerading as coincidence. Either way, you could almost call it perverse.
Hell, you could save time and call it Oz.
Beecher shut the pod door and pointed Carruthers to the bottom bunk. Carruthers spread his blankets out, stammering about his crime, his sentence, and my God Toby what happened to you.
He glossed over a detail.
"So you're an alcoholic, too," Beecher said.
"No, I'm not. No. I mean, I had too much that night, but--"
Snort. Beecher leaned on the door.
Carruthers frowned. "You?"
"Same charges, longer sentence."
"Sorry, buddy. But hey, now you don't have to do time alone."
Beecher slipped a hand in his pocket and tilted his head, watching, suppressing an upward twist to his mouth; Carruthers arranged his Oz-issue hygiene kit over half the shelf, placing soap and sundries in quick but precise symmetry with Beecher's things.
Then Carruthers picked up Chris's pillow and fluffed it.
"Do you have any advice for the new guy?" With only Plexiglas between himself and the leering inmates, Carruthers smiled, that familiar "I'm Jase the Chase" puppy appeal.
Little fuck thought he was safe.
Beecher considered imparting his own sponsor's advice. --Useless piece of shit. Maybe not. "Don't take candy from strangers," he said, and turned away.
Carruthers swept his eyelashes down and up again. "Where are you going?"
"Jase. 'Sponsor', not 'babysitter'."
Beecher's new podmate wrapped his arms around himself. Shaking his head, Beecher walked to the other end of the pit, where Rebadow and Hill lounged at a checker table.
But of course he didn't find Chris with them.
"Shit," he whispered. He edged away, aimlessly, until he spotted Perkins lurking under the stairs. Smirking again. Bastard. Sick of playing. "What're you looking at," he hissed, when he came close enough.
"Everyone's talking about your boyfriend and Schillinger," Perkins said. "Mutual kill, very messy."
"The fuck is it to you?"
Perkins smirked wider. "The hacks don't know how it really happened. I saw what you did."
Oh. "I don't know what you think you saw, but--"
"When I know what I want, I'll tell you, cocksucker. Remember that."
"Cunt," Beecher said, and went to lunch.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
He didn't think about Chris or Carruthers during work that day.
I'm not thinking about Keller, he said to himself as he transcribed Sister Pete's notes.
See? Or the new guy.
It was a coincidence that he mistyped "case" as "Chase".
And it just happened that he spilled the white-out-- which he never used, except, coincidentally, today-- and went to the supply cage for a replacement bottle, and also to stock up on those pens that Sister Pete liked, and maybe, if there were any of those clippy things... And there, behind the broken photocopier, he found his new podmate.
Perkins had Carruthers by the arms; they were kneeling on the floor face-to-face, a handkerchief in Carruthers's mouth, and Jonesson behind the little guy, grunting his way to orgasm.
Peter Marie's key dropped out of Beecher's hand.
Perkins jumped to his feet, then grinned. "Beecher. Shut the gate and go. Or get in here and help."
Jonesson gave a last, hoarse grunt.
Beecher stepped into the supply cage and closed the gate behind him. He grabbed Carruthers's chin and forced his face up. Tears streaked down florid cheeks.
"Wasn't tight enough to be a cherry," Jonesson said with a chuckle.
I should go. Beecher's grip tightened. Carruthers whimpered.
"You going to take your turn, fag?" Perkins said.
The punch landed square on Perkins's chin-- Jonesson surged off the floor, but Beecher kicked him in the nuts. He turned back to Perkins. Passed out cold. Glass jaw. What do ya know.
He hauled Carruthers's pants back up his legs and dragged him to the psych office. No one saw them; even Sister Pete wasn't in. "Are you okay? Jase? Jase." He snapped his fingers in front of Carruthers's face. "Can you walk?"
"Are you torn? bleeding?"
"I d-don't think so."
"Come on, focus. Did they hurt you?"
Carruthers shook his head. "N-no."
The handkerchief had fallen onto Pete's desk. Beecher used it to wipe Carruthers's face. "You should go before they get their feet under them."
When Carruthers had staggered out of earshot, Beecher returned to his desk, glancing at his sore knuckles, shaking his hand out-- ouch. Chris was always telling him to strike somewhere softer than the jawbone.
How the fuck did the bastards get into the supply cage, anyway? Of course, plenty of guys knew how to pick locks. Wasn't the sort of thing you did when you had a squirming prag tucked under your arm, was it?
Which conjured a picture of Perkins and Jonesson lying in wait, with some half-assed plan--
Beecher pulled at his beard.
It only remained to be seen how they'd take revenge for his spoiling their fun. It'd be a perfect cap to one winner of a week.
He turned to the next page in Pete's notebook and resumed typing.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Bzzz. Almost dinner time.
Tim put aside a memo from the Warden and picked up one from the new infirmary doctor-- another charmingly-phrased complaint about the ever-vanishing prescription drug inventory, as if it were Tim's fault they didn't have the evidence to nail the suspected thief.
But anything that concerned an Em City inmate was Tim's fault.
He dug into the rear cabinet. Where was that work assignment log?
Murphy opened the door after a single knock. "Tim, are you in?"
"Mmph," Tim said, and spat out a paperclip.
"Are you in? An inmate's waiting to see you. Say, you up for a meal after my shift's over?"
"Sure. Al's Diner? I think Miss Boobs-a-Poppin is waiting tables tonight."
"Nah, I got a craving for Romanian. I'll buy."
"You're on. And tell the inmate I'll see him."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
A hack pulled him out of the cafeteria line. "McManus wants you, Beecher."
His mouth dried up as he followed his escort to the office.
McManus wants me for what? Three guesses, and the first two don't count.
"Beecher. Sit down." McManus tapped his pen on the desk. "You left your shirt in the infirmary yesterday. I just arranged for it to be sent to the forensics lab in the city. If it has Schillinger's blood on it, you'll be charged with murder."
Bingo. Perkins blew his wad. "Why stop there? It has Keller's blood on it; you can charge me with killing *him*."
McManus looked at him.
Beecher suppressed an urge to snarl a few fuck-you's, waiting, waiting for McManus to brag about his witness, waiting for one of the usual investigative screw-ups, come on McManus, say it, say something, God damn it...
"Go back to your meal, Beecher."
Of course, Beecher considered as he retreated downstairs, of course he wouldn't be convicted of murder. It couldn't happen. They had no case. He was going to get out of this lowest circle of hell. Soon.
But, shit, how would this look to the parole board?
They had no case.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
His glasses had fallen to the floor. He'd heard someone step on them in the struggle. No one else had bothered him on his way back to his cell.
Oswald was designed to induce specific psychological reactions. Specifically, guilt and fear. Shrug it off, Jase.
Shrug it off.
He pressed the pillow to his face, and wondered what he wouldn't do for a gin and tonic right now.
God, I want a drink.
If not gin, then bourbon. A whole fucking bottle...
Shit, it was true. He was an alcoholic. And it had landed him here, where he was gonna get--
He had Toby's help. Toby had saved him.
Not soon enough.
Oswald was designed--
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Beecher avoided the pod until count time.
O'Reily was the one to go to for 'scripts, since Nathan's final departure; he haunted the infirmary as if to stalk some fading scent, the last resonance of her aura... perhaps her ghost. "Got tranquilizers?" Beecher said, but in the end he didn't offer the pills to Carruthers. Watching from across the pit, Beecher observed that his podmate had pulled himself together pretty fucking quickly. Compared to Beecher in his day.
Of course, compared to the monumental sulk Beecher'd pitched, every prag and fag in Oz had pulled himself together pretty fucking quickly.
Lockdown. Carruthers sat on his bunk, rubbing his eyes repeatedly.
Beecher paced to the door, peered across the cellblock at Jonesson and Perkins in their pod on the gallery above. Fucking bastard Perkins fucking smirking again.
I'll wipe that smile off.
"Oh yeah-- what're you gonna do?" Chris said. "You gonna get that jizzbag all by yourself?"
Beecher tapped his fingers against the glass. He fucking hated to feel helpless.
"What happens now?"
Beecher turned to face the source of that breathy voice. "Shut up."
"I said shut up."
Squint. "At least lemme thank you for--"
Beecher twisted his hands into Carruthers's collar. "Shut the hell up, you pathetic prag. I just fucked up my parole for your fat ass."
Carruthers looked away, mouth trembling. "I'll pay you back-- somehow--"
"Fucking right, you will," Beecher said, leaning into Carruthers's face.
His pulse leapt. Blinking, he inhaled sharply. Blood surged in his head, dark and loud, the roar of surf on a moonless beach. He let his lips twitch, smile.
Then he exhaled across the prag's cheek. "It's clear you need a real man to protect you. I might be persuaded to help you in that regard... unless you want to take your chances in the pit. Sweetpea."
For a moment, he thought Carruthers was going into cardiac arrest.
Then he recognized the smothered wheezes and eye-rolling as blind panic. The little guy slumped out of his grip. Beecher clenched the bunk frame to steady his hands. The tide receded, leaving him light- headed and painfully erect.
Was this how it felt?
Beecher bared his teeth and paced until lights out.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Bzzz. In Emerald City, night fell with a distinctive music, percussive and atonal: the buzzer's echo fading into the swish of uniform cloth as on-duty officers circled the block, the syncopated thumps of forty prisoners kicking off their shoes, and the crisp run of switches clicking across the control panel as the CO supervisor flipped them down.
Tim McManus, on the upper gallery, stopped near the stairs when the lights flickered off, listening for any unusual noises. Then he jogged down to the watch station to join Sean Murphy, who waved him ahead. But Tim waited for Murphy, and Murphy waited until the night- shift supervisor had finished signing in. Then both men headed down to the pit.
"Listen," Tim said, "I'm sorry about dinner, but I gotta stay and finish some red tape."
"No way, you're going with me," Murphy said as they reached ground floor. "I heard this might be our last chance to eat there."
"Last chance--" Tim grabbed his arm. "What are you talking about? This is, uh, whatsit, the Romanian place, the one around the corner, right?"
"Bowman from Unit G told me they're having a little dispute with the health board." "The board-- shit." He shook his head. "That's a fucking shame, Sean, a fucking shame. It's a nice joint, overall. Made some good memories there."
"I know what you mean, my friend."
Tim glanced in the Ivy League pod as they walked by; the older inmate was perched on the sink, the newer in the chair with his face in his hands. "Bed-time, kids," Tim called, rapping the glass.
Murphy threw an arm over his shoulders and steered him toward the gate. "Come on-- don't look back, Tim, you worked a long week. Emerald City can sort itself out for one night."
~ finis ~