[Home | Quicksearch | Search Engine | Random Story | Upload Story]

With thanks to Ernest Hemingway, for lending me a title; to K, for knowing her old-time songs; to Sarah and Amber, for giving this the once-over; and to Abyssinia4077, for offering to write the four-letter words and generally indulging me in all that I do.

What We Have Instead

by Epigone

And then you're someone you are not,
and Junction City ain't the spot.
Remember Mrs. Lot and when she turned around.
And if you've got no other choice,
you know you can follow my voice
through the dark turns and noise
of this wicked little town.
--Stephen Trask, "Wicked Little Town"

There's an old joke that gets passed through the system like a virus. Man walks into a prison. Man gets paroled in five, twenty, fifty years; but man never gets out.

Black humor isn't that good for a laugh. But then neither is prison, where the jokes are like war stories: if you understand the punch line, you're already halfway gone.

Prisoner number 97B412, Tobias Beecher, gets parole on July fifth, 2001. He picnics in a park somewhere far from the city, Holly in his arms, Catherine's fingers tucked into the crook of his elbow. It's only two weeks past solstice, and the day burns slowly on its long fuse.

But when the sun goes down, he wakes up. He wakes up and out, and the board denies his parole, and he goes back to Em City, back through those same gates he passed his first day in, as if the past four years were the dream, a nightmare to be repeated eternally. Never-ending punishment. A sentence without a period.

That's a hell of a job for any storyteller. After a while, people run out of breath and interest. Events conspire to blot you out, erase you from the ledger. Dreamers awaken.

Does that mean the stories stop? Who's to say? Nobody's left in the forest to hear the tree fall. The lights have all gone out for the night.

So this is where the dream could end: but not yet.

* * *
They only go on one picnic. Summer ebbs like a tide into autumn, and Catherine with it. By winter she's gone, and Toby can't blame her. She's saturated with prison at work--she can't want to make her home with him.

That December he wanders the house, reclaiming the hours of his days. He keeps an ambient layer of noise about him everywhere: the television constantly on in the house, the radio playing in the car even for the five-minute trip to Holly's school. He can't stand silence anymore, now that there are no more guards or glass. No more McManus glowering through his office blinds, or Said passing judgment, or Hill watching them all. Just absolute solitude and absolute privacy.

If the power goes out--as it sometimes does, when the snow slants dense and impenetrable across the sky--he still half-believes it's lights out. The windows rattle in their frames like the walls of his pod in the riot. That's when he hums to himself, tuneless as static, whatever comes to mind. Deep in December, it's nice to remember....

And even when it's not nice, it's unavoidable.

Unavoidable, inevitable: that's what Toby is thinking when he drops Holly and the baby off at his parents' one Friday afternoon, throws a toothbrush and a change of clothes into the car, and hits I-95 flying at nearly eighty miles per hour and cranking the radio as loud as it will go. He imagines he follows the music north, hopping from station to station on the way to Massachusetts. The noise keeps him close to his old prison life, as though he skates on a piece of fabric frayed so thin in places that he presses through. The Beatles insist: Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes. Gazes are on him. He lives an observed life. And that keeps it livable.

Sister Peter Marie once said to him, "Listen, maybe He stripped you of the superficial sense of yourself--you know, doctor, lawyer, Indian chief--so that you could find the real you through Him."

And maybe he did. Maybe Tobias Beecher is the man who killed Schillinger's sons, slit Metzger's throat with his fingernails, bit off the tip of Robson's dick; the man who stood in his pod during the riot and howled, so aroused that the very soles of his feet crawled electrically.

He drives toward Walpole, Massachusetts possessed by that same intensity now, chemically propelled like a migrating bird. The skin of his face prickles with two days' worth of stubble, as though something beneath the surface is clawing its way out. For a long time he drives with the windows down, naming the people he sees, each a prisoner waiting to be expressed. A teenager in New York City has O'Reily's cagey walk, and a woman in a Massachusetts suburb follows him with Said's level stare. It makes them real to him.

Life seems to have contracted around a few final such nodes of familiarity. He drives grazing the world only at certain points--scattered people, flashes of memory. And the promise of Cedar Junction, Walpole, Massachusetts, somewhere beyond the bend in the road.

The real you, said Sister Pete. Call me if you ever need to talk, said Sister Pete.

But reality has shrunk, leaving only outlines of the old world behind--his law-school diploma on the wall, Genevieve grinning gawkishly at him from photographs--like rings on a bathtub, the high-water marks of his life. And though he carries Pete's phone number on a scrap of paper in his back pocket, he doesn't call.

He drives. Drives, toward Cedar Junction, and Chris.

* * *
"I want to tell him," he says, resting his weight on the frame of the door to Sister Pete's office. "I want to talk to him."

"I don't think that's a good idea," says Sister Pete. "Even he didn't think it was a good idea, remember?"

Toby thrusts his hands at her, palms up, and she catches them in her own. Immobilized in her dry grasp, he says, "Look. I tried to pack today, and I couldn't do it. I don't even remember where I put my suitcase. I--I left my toothbrush in the sink in the shower room." Her fingers squeeze his; his voice catches in his throat. "My toothbrush. I'm not even taking that. When I leave tomorrow, I'm getting out of here empty-handed." He swallows. "But I can't leave that behind."

This startles a pained smile out of her, a grimace that she tries to conceal. She lets go of his hands and hugs him, hard, and he can feel her stand up on the balls of her feet to reach him. Sometimes, with all her vigor, he forgets how small she is. How small, and how far from youth: as she leans against him he also feels the creak of her bones, ponderous and brittle as ice--back, hip, and knee. He winces in sympathy, remembering the painful friction of his broken legs. That's the essential selfishness of empathy: the only frame of reference is your own.

Or is that a lie Chris taught him, as he taught him to mistrust physical affection, so that even now, when Pete embraces him, Toby's skin crawls just a little? He still sometimes sees the world through Chris's eyes, as if blurred by the glass of a pod.

Pete slips something into his back pocket and releases him. When he looks at her quizzically, she says, "My phone number. Just in case you need it."

"I bet you give that to all the boys," he quips, but the look in her eyes tells him that she doesn't.

"Tobias," she says, "there's so much waiting for you on the outside. You have to remember that." She hesitates. "In here, nothing means what it does out there. Everything is a tool: intimidation, affection, sex. I don't have to tell you that. But the thing about him"--Toby is dully amused that neither of them is willing to utter the name, to conjure him up--"is that emotions will always be tools for him. Sex will always be a hook. Even on the outside. He'll always be a prisoner, no matter where he goes. There's no helping it." She looks as though she wants to hug Toby again, but settles for touching his shoulder. "Don't visit him. Don't call him."

"I can't--"

"No. Don't live your entire life in prison."

* * *
In the hills of southwestern Massachusetts, Toby picks up a hitchhiker. He doesn't realize that she's a woman until she hops into the car and deposits her backpack on the floor. From behind, walking along the shoulder of the road with a tight, narrow-hipped gait, she had appeared genderless, or perhaps both genders at once--she tugged at him, anonymous and androgynous, because he is still working out these things for himself. He has not slept with anyone since he got out; he doesn't quite know the difference anymore between sex and love, which is a need and which an identity. Whether he loves men or just Chris.

The girl doesn't say a word to him, but stares out the window. Her hair is cropped in the back above the nape of her neck, severely and not quite fashionably, as though she just missed the current trend. It endears her to him. He, too, feels dislocated, a few years too late for the world.

When he pulls over to check the map, he looks at her sidelong, and they don't even have to speak. In a minute they've clambered into the back seat, and he is fumbling with the fly of her cutoff jeans. (How like an inmate, he thinks: no seduction necessary.) He presses her down in the square of sunlight that comes in through the window and stares her full in the eyes the entire time, even when she blushes and tries to glance away.

Afterward, she crawls awkwardly back into the passenger seat, all elbows and knees like a child. An hour down the road, they come upon a roadside shopping center, and she says, "You can let me out here." As she shoulders her backpack, she adds in a lower voice, "Thanks."

He shrugs. "It was no problem."

"Not just for the ride. It's been a long time," she says, "since someone really looked at me."

He wonders for a moment where she comes from, where she's going. What drove her to the highways of Massachusetts, what obscure hurt tightens the corners of her mouth when she smiles. Maybe she doesn't know, any more than he knows what hole he tried to fill with alcohol long before he had any real reason to drink. Or maybe she does, and could explain it to him.

But all he asks for is her age. She says she's twenty-two, closes the door, and walks away across the parking lot. In the dusk he watches the flash of her unshaped thighs under the fringe of her cutoffs, that strobe of her sexless walk, and is grateful that at least he's not a statutory rapist on top of everything else.

* * *
A week into lockdown, and it's like being back in law school, so much information coming at Toby so fast and so unremittingly. Happy New Year--nothing is new, and everything is new.

He and Chris fuck on the top bunk because the bottom still reminds him of Schillinger, and because he has grown to love the vertiginous thrill of peering down upon Em City in the dark, over the curve of Chris's back. Or he loves it as much as he dreads it, anyway--a mixture to which he's grown accustomed.

He thinks that he learns more about Chris's former lovers from sex than about Chris himself. He can reconstruct the women who came before: that particular buck of the hips, there, must be a response to something Bonnie used to do. Or maybe it was Kitty, or Angelique. Or maybe (when the reflex is fainter, more eroded), it was one of the men.

As far as Toby knows, he is the only man who has slept with Christopher Keller and lived to tell about it. Sometimes he almost envies the others. He doesn't know, can't predict: will he leave such an imprint in the bed when he is gone? In years to come, will he be memorialized by a look in Chris's eyes or a hitch in his breathing?

("Do you think I killed them?" asks Chris one night. "Toby? I know you're not asleep." All Toby can see are the teeth in his feral smile, shining like those of a wounded animal. "Answer me. You think I kill everyone I love?"

He's humming, an echo in the cavern of his chest. Last night as I lay on my pillow, I dreamed that my bonny was dead.

Are you afraid to die, Toby?

Answer me; I know you can hear me.)

Their first night together, Toby can't focus. Too many other people in the bed, he supposes, too many other claimants in the case, too many wives and dead men between them. The second night, he opens his eyes and watches Chris, and learns something else.

Chris doesn't come. He goes away, staring for miles. Then Toby understands why it's called climax, because Chris seems to gather in on himself and rise, rise, sequestered somewhere in the dark, rising, ascension, apotheosis. He can feel Chris's fingers, disembodied, touching him, and he burns like brimstone, sinner in the hands of an angry God; haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed. Look not below you, on the walls and walls of glass, or you'll lose your balance; look not behind you, on the burning city or the road from hell, or you'll lose your soul.

"Oh," he breathes, arching, closing his eyes, "oh oh ohohG--"

And Chris's heat in his belly and Chris's nails in his shoulder and Chris's voice in his ear, saying, "Yes. Yes."

* * *
Here's the deal. Five stages of cycling through loss, and before you drop into depression you try bargaining. When you hit the wall, you start tallying your assets and offering them up.

The thing about prison, though, is that it's living between four walls, so any way you turn you come up against one. Your assets are liquid, you travel light. And nobody's selling nothing. God sits up there in his glass room at the top of the stairs, but he's taking no appointments and the hacks at the door don't want your bribes.

You just need an answer. You don't really believe it would solve anything, fill any holes, but it would reassure you that there's somebody up there; that you aren't running the place all by yourself, making your piecemeal democracy, conducting your little three-ring riot. Crouching in the dark under the stairs, waiting for the S.O.R.T. team to barrel in and end the world.

Here's the deal: you keep asking. You keep praying. Fall on your knees, and if you're real lucky, you hear the angel voices. You hear something. After all, stranger shit has gone on under the sun. Psychics and prophets, Ezekial and wheels within wheels. There's no guarantee, though. You don't get your money back if the apocalypse comes first.

Maybe God gives you an answer. Maybe sometimes, if he's in a real good mood, it isn't no.

* * *
I'm as sure as anybody can be about anything, said Zabitz.

Cross my heart and hope to die. It's an appropriate expression in Oz, where a threat is the only oath that holds and death the only certainty.

In the TV area, Toby drops into a chair beside O'Reily, who is meticulously setting up pieces on the checkerboard. Across the table, Cyril watches them both with his eyes flat as coins.

"Heyyy, Beecher," drawls O'Reily. "Any news on your daughter?"


"That's rough, man," says O'Reily in that offhand way that he seems to think conveys deep feeling, and then flips a checker onto the board. "You got any ideas about who's behind it? 'Cause let me tell ya, I got some--"

...Because it's someone I understand is very near and dear to you.

"No," Toby says. "I'm leaving it to the FBI. You playing anyone?"

O'Reily looks up at him for the first time, eyes hooded, a wry smile flickering over his lips. At the eye contact, Toby is surprised by a sudden throb of attraction. But then that's part of O'Reily's game, and has been since Toby first met him, offering drugs when no one else offered anything at all. There's such a fine line between attention and seduction, and O'Reily knows more about it than he lets on.

"Always," he says, and grins more widely. "In checkers? No. You want to?"

Toby casts a glance at his pod: Chris is nowhere to be seen.

"Nothing better to do." He notices, peripherally, how O'Reily follows his gaze and then scans the rest of the room for trouble. Ryan O'Reily, the weathervane of Em City.

Toby moves his chair around the table, nearer to Cyril, and slides out the first red piece. O'Reily studies the move, his shoulders hunched forward, and Toby's pang of lonely longing returns.

"O'Reily," he says, "can I trust you?"

"With what?" asks O'Reily, cutting his eyes upward in suspicion.

"In general, I meant." He shrugs, feels foolish. "I was just wondering."

"Whaddaya need, Beecher?" O'Reily makes his move, leans back, and deposits his feet on the table so that his body hangs with lopsided slantwise grace in the chair. "You want somebody whacked?"

"Never mind. It was a rhetorical question." Trust, Toby thinks, is just another ask to O'Reily, a symbol for an action. In his way, the man is a bone-deep Catholic; he believes in the relevance of works, good or bad. Maybe he has the right idea. If trust isn't a relationship, it can't be broken. And neither can he.

Half an hour later, as Toby is jumping one of O'Reily's kings, Murphy bellows "Count!" Through the general exodus, Toby can't see Chris reenter Em City, but he knows that he does. He gets to his feet and drags out a wan smile. "Guess that's it."

"We'll leave it out," says O'Reily, pushing back his chair and motioning to Cyril. "Pick up tomorrow where we left off?" He spares the board a parting glance, and Toby imagines his eyes snapping each piece into place like a jigsaw puzzle. O'Reily will remember the board, every weakness in the lines, every threat in this move and three ahead. Toby would have had a better time teaching him chess than he did with Chris.

Maybe a lot of things would have been different, without Chris. Maybe better.

"Okay," replies Toby. He notices that he's still holding his checker. He tosses it up, tries to roll it in and out of his fingers. It catches against calluses on his hand that weren't there when he came to Oz. "Hey, O'Reily? I owe you."


"Yeah. For the checkers and the drugs. You're good at distractions. You're the one who taught me--somebody's looking out for me, right? God is holding me in the hollow of his hand."

O'Reily is watching him warily.

"Right, Beecher, you got it. Whatever. Go get some sleep or something, man. I think you need it."

"I don't think we'll be doing much sleeping tonight." He looks at the pod, in which Chris's vague shape is half-obscured by the bunks.

I'm as sure as anybody can be about anything.

Chris Keller.

"`May God hold you in the hollow of his hand'--that's really what they call a mixed blessing, huh?" says Toby musingly, the edges of the checker pressing into his skin. "Because sooner or later, God's gonna make a fist."

* * *
Eventually, Toby becomes aware of hunger hollowing out his belly. At the corner of the roadside shopping center stands a grocery store, announced by a dingy sign outlined in lights. He takes a wad of bills from his wallet, locks the car, and goes in.

The freedom of choosing his own meals still dizzies him, and he feels profligate, like the bachelor he was before Genevieve, as he begins to pick out items: a packet of cheese, a loaf of bread. He turns a corner and comes upon a stack of six-packs, Budweiser, and he grips the handle of his shopping basket so hard all the blood goes out of his knuckles. He hasn't had a drink since that one lapse in Oz, but the need comes upon him suddenly, an onslaught like a concussion.

"No," he says out loud, as though the sound will bring him back to himself. "Don't. No." Back to himself--a strange way of thinking of it, when this is himself, so far into the depths that he's lightheaded when he finally comes up, as if he emerged too fast from underwater.

He turns his back on the beers and tries to turn his mind away as well. A bottle of mayonnaise, that's what's needed next. He walks down the next aisle and, rummaging through his memories, hears Chris's voice. It's not in his head, because Chris doesn't play for stakes as low as that. The voice is as real as the crates of vegetables and the overhead lights.

"So I go into this store. Middle of the afternoon and nobody there, just one cashier falling asleep at his register. End of the line."

Bottle of mayonnaise, here it is. Toby drops it into his basket.

"I just walk around: up and down the aisles, up and down. Goin' nowhere. I knock a couple of things off the shelves in the back. Switch around price tags. You know, stupid shit, passing the time. Nobody notices. Nobody gives a fuck."

Sliced turkey.

"I look in every corner, I touch every shelf. I oughta piss on the wall or something. I own this fucking place. No wallet, no checkbook; only thing I got's the gun; I don't even remember what kind. Something cheap and fast, no strings attached."

Can of soda. Box of crackers. The weight of the basket on Toby's arm, and the money in his back pocket making a bulge that he almost believes is the gun.

"I'm in there nearly two hours--there's a clock on one wall I see every time I pass. Nobody comes in, and the cashier's only watching the insides of his eyelids. So finally I work my way over to the checkout line, and I pick out the best-looking pack of gum there. Spearmint."

Toby finds himself walking down the last aisle toward the checkout line--a long aisle, long as the road to the slaughterhouse. But that doesn't make sense. He's the one with the gun; he's the killer here. Isn't he? It truly surprises him when he reaches into his pocket and his hand encounters only the folded bills, with which he pays the cashier.

"And I just walk out. Fucking cashier, you'd think he'd been waiting for it all his life. He jumps up yelling I gotta pay. I tell him where he can stick it. And whaddaya know, he's got a goddamn shotgun under the counter. That's when I run--I never even took off my helmet--and pull out my gun, and when he yells again I turn around and blow the motherfucker away."

"And?" Toby had asked, remembering that he too had a voice. It was day ten of the lockdown: prone in his bunk, he lay looking at Chris, who leaned against the door looking out. A bar of shadow from the bed in the next pod stretched across his back, the wide span of his shoulders.

"That's it," said Chris. "Fucking cops had me inside of five blocks, and you know the rest. The rest is Oz."

"That's not it," insisted Toby. "For a pack of gum? That's not the whole story. That's just what happened."

"Toby," said Chris, "you're talking outta your ass. What else is there?"

"I want to know the whole story. I want to know why. It's too easy, your way."

"That's me, baby," said Chris, the near side of his face distorted by a sudden grin. "Easy as they come."

Now, months later, returning to the world with a plastic bag of groceries bumping against the backs of his legs, Toby doesn't know why he was surprised. Of course Chris omitted the important parts.

Outside, the sun rides low on the horizon. The neon sign glares across the parking lot. Toby eats a makeshift dinner and looks at the clock: it hardly seems worth it to scout around for a motel. Wearily, he guides the car into a secluded spot near the back of the parking lot, and puts himself to bed under his coat in the back seat.

He has the same dream as always. The mind is funny that way. It dredges up detritus; it devours itself, as the body does when starvation sets in. In the morning the glare on the windshield penetrates his sleep, and he climbs into the driver's seat again. The highway shines like a river, broken only occasionally by the whitecaps of swiftly passing cars.

Even as he brushes his teeth in the rearview mirror, he is only going through the motions, half-awake. He carries the dream with him still, and down the road: another lie dogging him.

In it, he's standing in his pod after lights out, his first night as a widower, and the mirror before him opens only into more darkness. He stands there crying, and Chris comes to him warm and holds him from behind, almost clumsily. Chris tells him over and over that he's not alone.

But he wakes up; the road is long and life is longer; and he is.

* * *
"It was a good service," says Toby softly. "This morning."

At first it seems as if Said didn't hear, but at length he says, in that controlled, almost courtly way of his, "I was... very glad to see you there."

They're both on the floor of Said's pod, Said cross-legged in the middle like a Buddha and Toby leaning against the frame of the lower bunk. He could sit on the bunk--it would be more comfortable--but when Arif let him in, he saw the drying tracks of tears on Said's face and instinctively dropped to the floor. He remembers doing this before: sitting with Said while he cried, the night after the Muslims cast him out.

"It was a collaborative sermon, right?" asks Toby. "`We who are left behind must rest assured that the room that we're in is not empty'--who wrote that part?"

Said's shoulders lift in a shrug.

"The author of the truth is not important."

Toby laughs shortly. "I would've thought the author was more important than anything, or else nothing gets written." He wants to touch Said, but doesn't quite know how. "No. I didn't come here to debate points of philosophy. I'm sorry. About Leroy Tidd."

"As am I," says Said simply. In his right hand, resting on his knee, he holds Tidd's knit green kufi, and now his fingers dig into it, hard.

"Said," Toby says, drawing out the words, "do you believe... that one act is enough?" Said doesn't answer, so he presses ahead: "For redemption, I mean. Assuming redemption is possible at all. And assuming that Islam puts much stock in it. I don't even know. Should I be talking to the Reverend Cloutier about this? Is this a born-again Christian deal, like being saved--"

"Beecher," interrupts Said, and Toby realizes that his voice has been rising hysterically. "I do."

On an impulse, Toby drops a hand onto the kufi and picks at a corner of it.

"Why--" He pauses, struggling. "Why did he do it?" Said stares at him, tight-lipped and bright-eyed; and after a moment Toby laughs, struck anew by the pain of it. "Right. It should be obvious."

Said puts his hand over Toby's, the smooth palm and the fingers long and warm.

"You said you have a chance at parole," he murmurs, and stands abruptly. Toby, following his hand, also gets up. "Go back to the world. Accept the sacrifice, and don't look to him for anything more."

"We were talking about Tidd," says Toby faintly.

"Of course," replies Said with perfect gravity. He reclaims the kufi and makes as if to place it on Toby's head. Toby catches him by the wrists and they stop there for a long moment, in the middle of the floor, held by some bond basic as atomics.

"Don't give it to me," says Toby. "I don't deserve it. I don't deserve any of this." Said drops his hands, and Toby starts away, only to pause at the door, looking down on Emerald City. "Lockdown in five minutes. Back to the pod." He says, without turning around, "`The room that we're in is not empty.' You didn't write that. You should know better."

"As-salaam Alaikum," says Said from far away, without inflection. "Beecher, I have nothing more to give."

The door closes behind Toby with the sound of a vacuum. He goes down the stairs two at a time, so fast that he's panting at the bottom, constellations bursting against his vision, stars going nova. He doesn't blame Said; he knows it's true, that he has run out of teachings. The only remaining lesson is the final one, the one that Said's disciples all learn in time, Tidd and Jefferson Keane and who knows how many others to come: that the only redemption in Oz is a good death. The best thing they can say of you after you're gone is that you died well.

The best thing, after you're gone, is if they say anything at all.

* * *
It's early when Toby pulls into the parking lot at Cedar Junction, and cold. He enters the prison, shows his identification at the front desk. The corrections officer says something about having to call it in and motions to a chair.

Toby doesn't sit. He stands before the desk with his eyes downcast and his arms behind his back. His wrists are lightly crossed, as though he's waiting to be cuffed.

The CO puts down the phone and says, "I'm sorry, sir, but you can't see him."

"Can't see him?" Toby looks up sharply. The movement--the memory in it--floods him with adrenaline. Fucking hacks, he thinks, and has to fight down the impulse to leap at the man's throat. "What are you talking about? I called to give you your twenty-four-hour notice. I've been driving since yesterday just to get here."

"I'm sorry for the inconvenience," says the CO. "But Christopher Keller is in solitary right now. No visits allowed. It's unlucky--"

"In solitary?" repeats Toby, bitterly. "What'd he do? If he fucked someone, you people had better have a hearse ready when he gets out."

Toby recognizes something in the posture of the CO now, as he leans forward a little: that immediate responsiveness to recalcitrance. Fucking hacks, he thinks again. All the same.

"He was found to be in possession of illegal substances. You're going to have to reschedule. Sir, I'm sorry, nobody can predict things like this--"

And that's it. Toby knows better than to tangle with a tense corrections officer. He wanders back out, through all of the superfluous security--you stupid fucks, he screams silently, do you expect me to bring something out of prison with me? There's nothing left. I brought myself out; why the hell didn't anyone check that deadly weapon at the door?

Back in the car, he sits in the driver's seat without switching on the radio or revving up the engine. He isn't really surprised that he wasn't allowed to see Chris. Chris can't be here. He knows that. He knows now, in the depths of himself where still it has no name, that this is a dream, and so Chris can't be here. The dream would collapse on itself, unable to support its own weight. The center cannot hold.

In the silence he thinks of Chris; thinks of solitary. He can see it: the Hole on a smaller scale, because in his mind all prisons are Oz. It has a whiff of stale urine and the animal stench of accrued sweat. For hours Chris lies on the floor, burrowed as far into the tunnel of sleep as he can get. Occasionally the muscles tighten under the skin of his back, or his lips draw back from his teeth. It doesn't matter whether he does this in response to a dream or not, because after the first week the dreams will pace the cell as if they own it, more real than he is. Once a day, they will scatter as a guard comes by with a meal and bangs on the heavy door.

Toby turns the key in the ignition. The car roars under and around him.

This is prison, so this is Oz, so this is the world. Four walls. A bucket full of shit. The lone high light. And the rectangle of the door with its narrow slot of window, through which no one watches anymore.

* * *
Oz has a voice: an argot of whistles, murmurs, and crashes. Bumps in the night. Maybe sometimes you don't hear it, or you get used to it, but Oz is one verbose hunk of stone. It repeats itself, year in and year out. It whispers to itself, because who else is there to talk to?

In the whispers is every prisoner's secret fear, darker than death and hotter than hell. Someday, everyone will forget you. They'll stop visiting, stop writing. If you're lucky, for a while some sap from a prison-penpal program will take pity on you, some pretty girl maybe. But sooner or later the letters will trickle off, as she realizes she's not going to save you.

That's when you really die. Even if no one shanks you, even if they never strap you into the chair and zap you, you die. You get buried alive. You slip out of the stories.

(Are you afraid to die, Toby?)

Oz: that's the name on the street for the Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary. But what happens when there's no one left on the street who knows the name?

* * *
Rebadow comes back to Em City from his operation looking older, a little thinner, and strangely dignified in Busmallis's floppy hat.

"You look good," says Toby, standing irresolutely in the doorway of his pod. "Really."

"At least shaving my head wasn't a problem," says Rebadow with a smile. He sits heavily on his bunk.

"Exactly." Toby grins back as best he can. "You're a lucky man, but we knew that already. You've got somebody looking out for you upstairs." When Rebadow gazes at him with a puzzled expression, he adds weakly, "I assumed you had a guarantee from God or something. You know, a verbal contract."

"Oh." Rebadow lowers his eyes and his smile widens, as though he's indulging in a private joke. "But you ought to have figured out by now that God's not particularly trustworthy. He lies about as often about as He tells the truth."

"God lies to you," says Toby skeptically.

"He's a little like a horoscope, in His way. Or a psychic. Most people only remember the times He tells the truth, that's all." Rebadow touches the side of his skull under the hat, where Toby imagines the scar must be. "In any case, He lied to me, past tense. He hasn't talked to me in a while."

"I thought He'd make an exception, in this case."

Rebadow shakes his head. "What you thought, Tobias, was that I was crazy." Toby starts to protest, but Rebadow holds up a hand. "Who didn't? I'm beginning to wonder myself. Doctor Nathan told me, when I was first diagnosed, that brain tumors can sit dormant for years; and they can cause auditory hallucinations. Maybe that's all I was hearing. Or maybe I got enough of a jolt from the chair that I suffered brain damage." There is a silence, as if he's waiting for an answer. At length, he says, "It's a thought, anyway. All these years, God was just a lump of flesh, or a wayward electrical impulse."

"I'm not sure whether that's profound or just terrifying," says Toby. Then, considering that in their lives there is perhaps nothing more profound than terror, he amends: "Profound or blasphemous."

"I'm not sure," says Rebadow slowly, "that it makes a difference. I think maybe it's what you do after God stops talking to you that matters."

* * *
Toby tries to call Cedar Junction even after he's rebuffed the first time. Usually there's all sorts of official red tape, and when he finally speaks with someone who can help him--the resident shrink, a man who sounds far too young to be doing this job--he's always told that Chris won't take his calls.

Once, though, he gets through. Maybe the shrink bribed Chris to talk.

"What do you want, Beecher?" Chris asks distantly.

So many things; but he can't think of any of them.

"Chris," he says, "why did you rob that grocery store? Didn't you think--?"

"Yeah, I did think. You wanna know what I thought?"

"Yes. Please."

There is a rustling sound, as though Chris has shifted position. "I got a hack watching me right now, you know that? They think it bothers me, or that it'll make me behave myself if they're always here. Fuck, I'm flattered." His voice deepens and flattens out. Toby can almost see him, his eyes going blank and hypnotic as a shark's. It's an expression Toby's only just begun to understand: Chris doesn't stare at anything in particular, he stares with awe at nothingness. "They look at you and you're there. I used to drive around the city in the middle of the night, outta my mind on speed, and it was like... standing on the edge of the world and looking over. Nobody home. I could wrap myself around a streetlamp and nobody'd find me for hours."

Toby swallows and twists the phone cord. "You wanted to get caught?"

"If I robbed that store, something had to happen. Right? I thought I'd get mine if there was anybody watching at all." Toby can almost hear the knife of his smile slide in. "For once, somebody was."


"No. That's all. Listen, you're the lawyer, you know this could be self-incrimination or somethin'."

"You're paranoid," says Toby. "I wouldn't say anything."

"No." Chris laughs, wondering and proud. "No, fuck, even now you wouldn't, would you? But I got my hack standing by. And they've gotta bug these lines, you know they do. People are listening, Toby." His breath hisses in the receiver. "Aren't they?" And the line abruptly buzzes, empty.

But that's impossible. It's not true. He never calls Chris after that first time. The red tape is unnavigable, and Sister Pete says that Chris is right, that they shouldn't have any more contact.

This is only a memory in a dream--a double illusion. Soon he will wake in his pod, alone, ten long minutes before the lights come on. Soon he will go into that little room, and he will account for the last four years of his life, and the answer will be no. No, start again. And there's no five hundred for passing Go one more time, because there's no refund.

He understands this, because Chris would never fully confide in him; because for Chris the closest thing there is to the whole story is a half-truth. He would never allow Toby to know so much.

But Toby keeps calling, compulsively, through the bars of sleep, in the night when storms rattle the windowpanes. (No, no, it's just the guy in the next pod bumping up against the wall on his way to the toilet.) He calls, and listens to the hollow line murmuring in monotone to itself. In the middle of the night he dials out, he dreams the world, he drops to his knees and prays.

Answer me; I know you can hear me.

Please say you can hear me.
Please send feedback to Epigone.