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Last Night on Earth
Toby jerked awake at the faint touch of a hand on his head. The grey walls and ceiling still glowed with yellow, the shadows long across the floor; he couldn't have slept for long. He pushed a few damp strands of hair away from his face and pulled himself into a sitting position on the narrow bed. His throat was parched, his tongue puffy, nothing but dead meat in his mouth.
"Sister. I'm sorry. I..." He swallowed hard, but it didn't help. "I haven't been sleeping too well lately."
Sister Peter Marie poured him a glass of water and sat down, her face swimming oddly. It took Toby a minute to realise it was his vision that was wonky, not her features. "Don't worry about me. I was just concerned when we couldn't wake you. How are you?"
"Like anyone else in here." Toby sipped at the water, feeling it trickle slowly down his throat. He leaned back against the cool wall, its icy smoothness soothing against the flushed skin of his neck. "Scared. Restless."
"Is that all?"
He rubbed his eyes and laughed. "How about crazy?"
Her lips crinkled, falling into a sad little smile. "I think it's a little too late for an insanity defence, Tobias." She sighed. "Although I'd testify for you. Chris Keller drove saner people than you or I to distraction."
"That wasn't..." He watched his fingers clasp around the glass. "Sister, what would you say if I said I'd seen Keller?"
"Yes. In this room, talking to me."
He could feel her eyes on him even when he turned his gaze to the window.
"You know, Keller was never here, Tobias. This isn't Oz."
Such a gentle voice for a harsh truth. Toby knew what she was thinking. It was there in the sympathy on her face. Poor old Tobias, all alone on Death Row now. Seeing things, hearing things...
"I know that. Just humour me. What would you say?"
"I'd say... I'd say it was perfectly natural to think about or dream about the man who is responsible for you being here. Even if you hadn't had the relationship you did with him, I think it would be natural. Especially with only a few days to go before... well. With only a few days to go."
He shook his head. That wasn't it. Dreams didn't work that way; he'd had enough nights interrupted by the cold sweats to know that.
"It wasn't a dream, Sister. He was here." Toby's hands reached out as if to grasp those broad shoulders; never mind that he had pretended they weren't there last night. It had still been so real. "Don't laugh? I thought -- when I first saw him I thought he was here to... save me. Make things different."
The touch of dry fingers on his arm made his eyes prickle.
"I'm praying for a miracle, Tobias, but I don't think Chris Keller is going to be it."
Toby's laugh echoed harshly around the small cell. "It might be the best I'm going to get. He was... I don't know, a ghost or something."
"Do you believe in ghosts, Tobias?"
She was worried, he could tell. She only pursed her lips that way when he was causing her concern.
"I don't know." And that was the problem; he didn't.
* * *
Long before the lights went out, Toby was curled tightly on his bunk, forehead against the wall.
Clunk, slam, and he had only the moonlight for company. Right now he wouldn't even have minded Lord's nocturnal obscenities, or the endless sobs from Haigh that had been the soundtrack to his dreams for months. Anything but the heat, and the silence only broken by the harsh sound of his own breathing against the blanket he clutched tightly to him.
Even with the rough wool pressed against his nose and his face turned away, he knew when it happened. It was a taste now; the taste of a scent, like a spray left hanging in the air to tickle at the roof of his mouth. He clamped his tongue between his teeth. He wasn't going to acknowledge anything, he wasn't going to identify that taste, or the scent that he knew belonged with it.
It wasn't -- couldn't be -- real. If he didn't look, it wasn't there
"You told her about me, didn't you, Toby?"
Breathe in, breathe out. Fibres hot and fuzzy against his mouth, but he couldn't move, couldn't swallow. Couldn't turn over; but he had every other night, in the end.
Weak, Toby. You're so weak.
Silence. Breathe in, breathe--
A voice close to his ear whispered, "I know you told her."
He jerked away from the chill that drifted across the gap between his shorts and t-shirt, his mouth dropping open -
The taste flooded his mouth, each microscopic sensation a tug at his memory, a pull that tore his resistance to shreds.
"Yeah, you felt that. You know I'm here, don't you?"
Breathe in, breathe out. The wall was too close, the blanket pressed too tightly against his face, and the thing behind him...
"I know I hurt you, Toby. I know I was crazy, you know what I'm like. Sometimes I do these things... it's just the way I am."
The voice was husky; thick with emotion.
"The way we are."
That voice, the one that said it was all between them, whatever happened. Whatever they did. However they hurt each other.
"I'll be back, Toby. We need to talk about this."
It wasn't until he felt the presence leave the room that Toby pulled the blanket away from his face and flopped onto his back with a mirthless smile.
"Yeah? You'll have to be damn quick, Keller."
* * *
His final letters should have been written by now.
"It's part of the process of acceptance, Tobias," Sister Pete said every time she called by.
"I know, I know."
It wasn't as if he didn't want to write them. But how did you put a lifetime's advice to your kids in a letter? How did you put enough of yourself in there to let them know even the tiniest bit of you?
Letters arrived for him; he gave the reproaches barely a glance.
"Maybe your family need to say goodbye, even if you don't?"
"They'll live." It had been months, why drag it out any longer? He wasn't even sure he could make it to the visiting room if they came.
Tomorrow. He'd write the letters tomorrow.
* * *
"You'd have forgiven me eventually."
It was too hot tonight to muffle his mouth and nose; too hot to wear the t-shirt that clung to his skin by patches of sweat. Too hot to sleep, even without ghosts whispering in his ear. Toby wondered, once more sleepless some time around dawn, if he was going to rest again in this lifetime, or if Keller was determined to torment him until he reached the Chair.
Maybe the heating was broken. Maybe the building was on fire and they were all going to cook slowly. He could see the too-close skin of his wrist darken and burn before his eyes, feel the hairs singe and shrivel to crisp curls on his arms. Or would they evacuate the only prisoner left on Death Row just to fry him a couple of days later?
Of course they would. Justice had to kill you, not negligence. Or maybe they'd put it down to natural justice.
Justice. Toby tried to think of ways he wouldn't have forgiven Keller.
Making the deal with Agent Taylor.
Yeah, right. Pushing him down the stairs would have been kinder.
Shanking him -- he smiled to himself -- would have been kinder.
"I know you, Beech. You'd have made me suffer a while, then you'd have forgiven me."
The scent was there again, and he couldn't stop it this time, couldn't bear to move his hands to find a way to block it, couldn't stand to have any more heat against his skin.
Jesus, had Keller brought Hell with him this time? He could feel the skin crack on his lips as he forced them apart, splitting, unsealing. He half expected to feel the bile and carefully-hidden anger and betrayal seep out and poison the air. He was almost disappointed to see and hear nothing but his own weary voice.
"You're so damn sure of yourself, aren't you?"
He clenched his eyes shut against the transparent grin that hovered over him.
A soft, chilly caress over his lips made him gasp, but he stayed silent this time.
"I'm sure of you."
Toby waited until he was sure the room was empty before he pressed his fingers to his lips.
* * *
His last full day on earth.
Somehow, he'd never imagined he'd be spending it with a nun.
"You look like you haven't slept for a week."
Maybe it had been longer.
There was that look again. Funny how there always seemed to be disappointment mixed in with the concern. He tried hard to suppress the surge of anger that threatened to erupt; it was only exhaustion.
He was almost glad it would soon be over. Every night he spent here stretched out longer than the previous one. It didn't even matter now how long the presence stayed in his room. Every night was divided into waiting for Keller to turn up, listening to Keller, and lying awake long after he'd gone. All of them involved staring at the tiny patch of world outside growing darker or lighter, moment by moment.
Maybe he was hallucinating.
"It's hard to sleep with someone talking all night, Sister."
It was a few moments before she spoke, carefully.
His head was too heavy to nod, the back sore and throbbing where it leaned on the wall, but he didn't need to answer in any case.
"Tell me about it, Tobias. What does he say to you?"
Toby wasn't sure he wanted to share it. "Just... nonsense, really."
"I'll be the judge of that."
He stared at the corner of the room while he repeated the phrases. He wasn't sure of the exact words, but it didn't matter; they were empty now.
"He said I would have forgiven him."
Toby laughed. Didn't they both know the answer to that one?
"Maybe these visions--" She held a hand up at Toby's gesture of protest. "Visions, Toby. Maybe they're what you want. Or what you need."
"Believe me, Sister. Keller's the last thing I want or need right now."
There was something else, something... if only it wasn't so hard to think.
"Oh. He asked me why I chose the Chair."
"Why do you think he asked you that?"
If he knew the answer to that one he'd probably be able to sleep at night. Maybe.
It was an effort to bring his eyes back to focus on her face.
"Why do you think you chose the Chair?"
But no effort at all to answer that one.
"Because he did."
* * *
"I never thought you'd go for the Chair, Toby."
Keller was more agitated tonight, pacing in and out of the narrow strips of moonlight that split the cell. Toby ignored him and focussed on the stars that were just visible from this angle.
"Not that I don't think you got the balls. Just always thought you'd go for the injection."
The heat was a solid force that pressed him down, plastering him in a puddle of sweat to the grimy sheets. He couldn't be bothered to push the implied point; that Keller knew it would end this way. It wasn't as if he'd ever doubted that.
He looked up at the shadow that loomed above him. It seemed so very distant from down here. Almost as distant as those stars out there. There was no harm in talking to something so far away.
"I thought about it."
Oh, how he'd thought about it. Strapped helpless, flat on his back. Poison running through his veins, pouring into his body; yes, that would have been a Tobias Beecher death.
If he was guilty, he'd have taken it.
Keller resumed his pacing, transparent muscles flexing, his posture tensed for a fight. The flash of light, dark, light was too much for Toby's eyes; the effort of filling in the substance of flesh and movement more than he could deal with. He let his eyes drift over the ceiling, but still the silvery light flashed and dimmed. Should a dead man cast a shadow?
"You've gotta forgive me."
"So that's what this is all about." He didn't bother to hold back his anger. Fuck whoever heard him shouting at nothing. "You. It's always -- always -- about you, isn't it, Keller?"
"Toby, no, it's--"
"Because I think I should point out that we've been here before." He breathed out, trying to calm down, but there was only hotter air to breathe back in. He struggled to speak through the burning in his lungs. "Minus plenty of fucking points for originality, Keller."
"Toby, you gotta."
"I haven't got to do anything." There was only bitterness left now, tainting his mouth, poisoning his words.
"Look at me, Toby. I can't hurt you now."
"Not after tomorrow, you can't." But it didn't seem worth the effort of arguing any more. He wanted to sleep, but there wasn't going to be any of that. No more sleep, ever again. Did anyone ever rest the night before their execution? He wondered if anyone had studied it. Sister Pete could probably have told him.
Too late to ask her now.
"And I wouldn't. I can make it up to you, Toby, just like always. You know I'm the only one can give you what you need."
And he was there again. Just like the first time, crouched by the bed, his face looming large and too close. But not real, however much he tried to fill in the missing definition, the missing pieces. Even in the dim light that was all they had -- all they'd ever had -- he was just a grey shape. Just cold air and shadow that couldn't hold him; couldn't be anything to him now.
"It's too late, Chris." His eyes stung, sore and strained, and goddamnit he wasn't going to cry.
"Not yet." Keller's voice was urgent. "It's not too late yet."
"Still banking on a heavenly reunion, Keller?" Toby's mouth hurt to stretch into a smile. "I got news for you - it's not gonna happen."
"Hey." Keller's voice softened, and Toby let his head slip sideways to look directly at his visitor for once. "You gonna tell me you know better than a dead man?"
A ghostly hand stretched out to Toby's shoulder, and he flinched at the chilly touch against his hot skin. He wasn't sure he did know better; except that maybe it really was Hell he could feel in the cell, almost close enough to scorch him now.
For all he knew, dying in the Chair was a guaranteed ticket, and Keller his tour guide. He almost choked on the laugh.
"I don't know where we'll be tomorrow, Toby. But tonight... tonight it's just you and me."
Toby shook his head no, but when had Keller ever listened to that? The cool touch was soothing on his over-heated body, the sensation firmer than it had been the previous nights. He shivered at the fingertips sliding over his thighs, and closed his eyes when ghostly lips touched his.
With each moment of contact the weight settled on top of him grew heavier, more solid. His hands sought out the shoulders somewhere above him, tentatively resting where the heat stopped and the air became thinner, cooler. Blind and hardly able to believe the strength of his imagination, he let his hands slide over familiar muscle and skin. The hollow under the shoulder blade became real under his fingers, the brush of stubble against his chin pushing his mouth open wider, a too-familiar cheap aftershave filling his senses.
"Let it happen, Toby," Keller muttered. "Let me in."
On your last night on earth, why just let anything happen?
He thrust his tongue deep into the cool, awkwardly solidifying shape above him and spread his fingers wide, trying to find every taste, every sensation that could summon up the real Keller for him. He pushed and he twisted, tongue and fingers moulding and searching, until with his arm wrapped around a vague semblance of a neck, he found it. That perfect fit, the point where his body moulded into the moonlight and cold air, as it always had to Keller.
He gasped at the hand that slipped through the cloth of his shorts and wrapped around his cock. Deft and sure, knowing just where to press and caress, threatening to pull his release out of him as much by the knowledge of his body as by his actions. The strong arms braced either side of his head, muscles straining. Lips an inch above his mouth, whispering, kissing, possessing. That chest dripping sweat, those eyes staring hard into his as cool almost-flesh pressed into him, filling him impossibly, nudging him closer to the edge.
Maybe it didn't matter if it was madness, as long as it felt real. He surrendered to the inevitable, letting Keller sink deeper into his body, fill his mouth, seep into his very skin. Ice poured through his insides, spreading and chilling everywhere it touched. Thrilling, numbing, tingling in his veins; the ultimate high.
The ultimate anaesthetic.
He jerked once, twice, and came hard with a desperate gasp. Eyes wide, he watched the stars blink out one by one.
"Sleep well, Toby."
* * *
If Father Mukada found it odd that Toby wouldn't look him in the eye, he didn't say anything.
"Beecher, I know we've not been close in the same way as you and Sister Peter Marie..."
The barefoot man prowled to the far end of the cell and paused, his body tense. He ran one hand over his newly-shaved head and stared at the patch of pale blue sky visible through the window.
"But if there's anything you need..."
"I got all I need." He jerked his head up and flicked his eyes towards the hovering hacks. "Time to go?"
It was strange, watching the shuffling of his feet down those long corridors.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me."
Strange knowing that this was the last walk these feet would take. He slowed, taking the time to watch each motion, each step. Feel the cool, smooth floor under his feet.
"Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; Thou annointest my head with oil; My cup runneth over."
Oh yeah, it runneth over all right. He lifted his head and set his jaw at a cocky angle to swagger the final few steps. The same iron grey walls. Jesus, they couldn't even paint them a different colour?
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever."
Tobias Beecher would not laugh at that. He wiped the smile off his face as the door at the end of the corridor opened in front of him.
He scanned the crowd for Sister Pete when the curtains pulled back; oh yeah, there she was. He let his eyes meet hers and held the gaze, watching her. Damp-eyed, trying to smile for her friend Tobias. Now fiddling with her rosary. Shuffling on the plastic chair, adjusting her skirt.
So fidgety. Anyone would think she was the one about to be fried.
He didn't smile. And every moment he didn't smile, didn't acknowledge her, he could see the lines gather around her eyes; the puzzled look in her eyes grow. He knew when the slight sideways tilt of her head was coming even before it happened.
As if his secrets would be laid bare if she just looked at him from a different angle.
All in good time, Sister.
Leaning forward, palm smoothed of its lines against the glass; oh, she knew there was something not right.
Nothing you or God can do here, Sister. This? This is all me.
Waiting. Waiting for the perfect moment. The moment when the hood was poised above his immobilised head, the goddamned hack's hands finally clear of his face.
Still holding her gaze, he let a wide grin take over his face. A grin which didn't quite reach his eyes.
He had the satisfaction of seeing the shock of recognition on her face before his vision went black.
When the juice came, it was everything he'd hoped for.
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