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I owe a lot of people thanks for the encouragement they gave me while I was writing this, but I'm especially indebted to my betas, Maverick and Rustler. Thanks also to Riley Cannon, for numerous pep talks, and to K9, for putting so much work into AdSeg, the 'zine in which this story originally appeared. This takes place during the planning stages of Operation Andy, shortly after Andy Schillinger is released from the Hole.
Believe it or not, I enjoy doing laundry.
After all, there are different ways of enjoying things. There's enjoyment like you get from a well-mixed martini or a skillful blowjob, and I certainly wouldn't go so far as to compare this to that—but there's also a more...cerebral...enjoyment that comes from a certain clarity of thought, an opportunity to meditate on the things that motivate you and give you a reason to live from day to day. So yeah, I actually like being in this room—truth be told, I look for excuses to be here whenever I can. I have the freshest wardrobe in all of Em City, not that that's saying a whole lot.
In the Grand Tour of Tobias Beecher's Life, this little room would be a major highlight, practically a sacred place. They ought to erect a goddamn plaque to commemorate it. Right over there, across the room...that's the exact spot where, just a few months ago, I put my guts on display, and with such spectacular results. I can sit here and watch myself as I lay them out, even today, and I force myself to do it again and again. I rewind and replay it like a movie. I observe each gesture, listen to every word. My recall of those minutes is flawless.
I've perfected this routine almost to the point of ritualization. It starts at the moment my senses are crowded by the sound and substance of the room: the growling machinery, the rhythmic thumping and clicking and sloshy churning, the hot, damp fragrance, the inexplicably weird cast to the light. Then I'm turning and looking toward the table by the windows, and there we are, the two of us, me and him, and I watch everything that happens from beginning to end. I've watched it, relived it hundreds of times, and yet I don't think I could ever get tired of it.
Look at yourself. See? You're the one standing there looking so happy, with that fantastically sappy expression lighting up your face. Now pay attention, because you just might learn something.
And I do. I watch it all, studying every nuance, searching for new details, even though every one of them is already engraved permanently in my memory; I know every twitch and murmur, backwards and forwards. Still, I compulsively comb through them for some yet-unseen clue as to what was really going on, something in Keller's face or demeanor that should have given him away. Time after time, I come up empty. It can be more than a little frustrating, so I try to comfort myself with the fact that, after everything that had happened to me, I was still able to fall in love with someone.
No, not someone, as it turns out. Something. A hollow formation of flesh shaped like a human being.
I keep telling myself that there's no shame in falling for the con of a genuine professional, someone whose sole purpose is just that: to gain confidence, to take what he wants while exacting as much pain as possible along the way. He is a walking dictionary definition of the word "sociopath." Throughout history, how many otherwise intelligent people have fallen prey to these...anomalies? These things that are born to look like us but aren't like us at all?
No, I should feel no shame. I'm almost certainly in good company, simply the latest in a long line of victims who never really had a fighting chance—no, there's no shame in it. Our only real fault, if you can call it that, is our humanity.
Live and learn, I think, as I rewind and begin to play it all over again. Live and learn.
I sit on a washing machine, my back to the windows, keeping one eye on the room reflected in the dryer doors, the other on my book. I don't get a lot of reading done in here, but I like that it looks as if I do. My cane rests across my lap, always ready in case I need it. Sometimes, I entertain elaborate fantasy scenarios revolving around that cane. Aryans storm the laundry room, but they're no match for cane-wielding Beecher! What I lack in strength and numbers, I make up for in rage and cunning. One by one they fall, until I'm surrounded by groaning, broken white trash. All of Em City stands in awe. One person in particular shivers in fear—and more than a little blinding, knee-weakening lust...
...which segues nicely into one of my other favorite scenarios. Keller, pants around his ankles, bent over "our" table, taking it like a trooper. Working hard to prove what he's been trying to tell me ever since I limped back into our pod. Good boy. It's drawing quite an audience, too, because Keller...well, let's just say he puts on a good show. Hell, a great show. He keeps sobbing something about me how much he loves me, and I just keep fucking him that much harder. The crowd loves it.
It's easy to become lost in these fantasies sometimes, which does have the potential to be dangerous. One day I got a little too wrapped up in that second scenario, and the next thing I knew my dick was in my hand and I wasn't alone in the room. I didn't feel any particular need to explain myself to Busmalis when he walked in, but it was an uncomfortable moment nonetheless. And I realized that, next time, it could be someone else. And they could be holding a shank.
So here I sit, cane across my lap, half-staring at my book, half-monitoring the activity outside the room—the distorted, fish-eye reflections of people passing by, the occasional hack checking up on things, searching for illicit, non-laundry-related behavior. I catch a glimpse of Andy Schillinger, fresh out of the Hole and no doubt looking for a fix. In some ways, his presence here seems so fucked up; a face like that belongs in high school detention, not a maximum security prison. Kids that young simply should not be in Oz, although I thank God every day that he is. If his father were anyone other than Vern Schillinger, the inside of his ass would be so much ground chuck by now.
Well. One way or another, I don't expect him to be in Oz for very much longer.
I've learned so much here.
There's nothing on earth you can't learn a lesson from, when you think about it. You just need to keep your mind open to the possibilities. You can learn from Keller the same way you can learn from observing the way the parts of any machine operate to perform a function. If you were to construct a diagram of a gun, take it apart and put it back together again, you could study the principles behind the way metal components and chemicals are able to move and interact to expel a bullet with lethal force. Armed with that knowledge and a bit of intelligence, you could even theoretically improve on that design.
When you've gained intimate experience in dealing with someone like Keller, here are the kinds of things you can come away with, if you're able to endure the experience: How to use people effectively. How to manipulate people's feelings. How to destroy a person without anyone ever knowing that you are the guilty party, or even that you wanted that person destroyed in the first place. It isn't magic, and it's not something anyone is born knowing how to pull off. It's a simple matter of examining what works and what doesn't, what people are liable to fall for, what people need that you can provide them. Gauging a person's capacity for pain, and then tricking them into giving you the power to exceed it. Becoming the only thing that's holding someone up, so that, when you extract yourself, it's enough to make them fall to their death.
I've learned so much from him. But I'm not like him. I'll never be like him.
I've been staring at the same page for twenty minutes or so now, lost in my thoughts. I now know what I'll say to McManus, to the very letter. He interacts with me though a filter of guilt that makes everything easy. It's all going to be so simple, so perfect. Foolproof. I couldn't have asked for anything more than the opportunity I now have before me.
For the first time in I don't know how long, I prayed, and my prayers were answered. God sent down Vern's heart on a silver platter and a knife to carve it up with, and all that's left to do is to pick them up and get down to business. What else but the hand of God Himself could have landed one of Schillinger's kids right into the hands of the people who most want to hurt him, could have guided McManus's thought process to a point where that made actual sense?
I hear myself laughing again, a high-pitched cackle of sheer joy, a sound I've heard so many times since I first watched little Andy lope sullenly into Em City. He's the walking embodiment of my potential to cause Vern great pain, the greatest pain, and so the mere sight, the mere thought of him is like heroin to me. No, no, it's better than that. I'm going to take one of the few things in the world that Nazi purportedly cares about and give him no choice but to destroy it, turn his own bullshit ideology against him and leave him with nothing but the memory that he himself decimated the ranks of the Schillinger Youth by fifty percent. Instead of pictures, he'll be tearing up the real thing, and I'll be sitting there smiling, enjoying every sweet second of it. No, this kind of victory will be better than any drug. Better than anything.
After all, figuring out how to fuck Vern successfully is a very tricky proposition. Things like shitting in his face—although fun at the time, there's no denying that—aren't going to do a whole lot in the long run other than get me thrown in the Hole and eventually fuck with my parole. No, now that I've got a little perspective, a little sanity under my belt, I understand that it's important to play to one's strengths and to do it in a way that leaves you seemingly blameless in the end. Plus, I've now had a thorough education in that concept from a true master. I've seen how it's done, and it's time for me to give it a shot, to put all that hard-won knowledge to the test.
An adrenaline thrill shoots straight through me to the tips of my fingers and toes. I can't wait to tell Keller that he needs to pack up his things and move out. I can imagine exactly the expression I'll see on his face, the way his eyes will look. I sigh and lean back on my arms, then quickly right myself. Every once in a while, I forget that they're still healing.
I think of Keller, how he's going to react. It will look like pain. His eyes will widen, then narrow, his lips will part, his face will go pallid and white. He may even flinch, as if the pain is physical as well as emotional. Is pain what it really is, though? Is a creature like him capable of feeling pain with any more depth than an animal? Can his psyche be damaged by the withholding of something like love, as he would apparently have me believe? Or is it more a matter of a primal frustration at being denied gratification, like a dog whimpering at the foot of the dinner table?
If his pain is false, he does an amazing job of simulating it. Then again, he did an amazing job of simulating love. That kind of manipulation is his stock in trade; I have to try hard to never forget that.
The door swooshes open, and I know who it is even before I glance at the reflection in the dryers. I'm not the only person in Em City who looks for excuses to be in the laundry room.
I'm not like him. There are oceans of difference between what I am and what he is. Oceans.
I used to feel so tense whenever I had to be close to him. I didn't sleep for almost a week after I came back to the pod from the infirmary. The aching in my bones seemed to increase by an order of magnitude whenever he was around. I hid it well, I think. The closer he came, though, the worse it was. If I had to touch him, to push him away, that was the hardest thing of all.
It's slowly gotten easier. Sometimes it's even...fun. He has very little shame when it comes to me; it seems he'll do anything, endure whatever I throw at him. A couple of days ago I shoved him, in full view of everyone in the common area. No particular reason, other than that he was standing a little closer to me than I thought he really had a right to. It was the downswing of one rotation in what has become a steady, predictable cycle: I reject him, humiliate him, and he becomes cold toward me for a short time. He has just enough self-respect left for that to last maybe a couple of days at the very most.
Then I throw him a bone or two. I let him sit next to me in the cafeteria, for instance, or in front of the TV. I may respond when he asks me a question. He's slowly lulled into believing he has a chance, and he becomes increasingly bold. Sometimes I really believe that he can't help himself, that he needs to be near me—and that's what makes the next part so satisfying. I wait for him to reach a certain level of optimism, and that's when I pull the rug out from under him, and the cycle starts all over again.
I'm still trying to piece together his exact reasons for putting up with it all. I must represent a challenge, a trophy to be won, something he'll be able to point to and say "I conned him, broke him, reduced him to nothing, and after all that he was still in love with me." I realize now that he talked about his wives in a similar way a lot of the time, although I can't be sure what was true and what was a lie. I'm still figuring all that out, too.
I know he's been talking to Sister Pete, and I've been surreptitiously gathering information she probably doesn't even realize she's giving me. I don't think it's even within the scope of her world view to imagine that I'm up to anything. Poor Tobias, so mistreated, so abused, so betrayed, so in need of her help and understanding... She's one of the few honestly well-intentioned people in this hell hole, and I'm afraid it's going to get her hurt someday. Good intentions don't get you anywhere good around here. Things that mean something on the outside—charity, honesty, compassion, love—get twisted into cruel jokes with repercussions that make a mockery of traditional moral logic. Most of these assholes come in here understanding that already. Others learn the hard way. But we do learn.
I'll survive this place with my soul intact. He never had one to begin with.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see him dump an odd assortment of clothes on top of the washer next to me. I know what Keller's clothes smell like when they need to be washed—this is a guy who works out obsessively and isn't shy about sweating—and this pathetic pile of shirts and shorts doesn't even come close to qualifying.
"Wow, Beecher, imagine finding you in here." Keller begins shoving each article of clothing, one at a time, into the washer—probably to make it seem like there's an actual load there. "Do you do your laundry like every fucking day?"
I pretend to finish the page I'm reading, then turn to the next one. "Seems you're in here too, doesn't it?"
"I forgot some shit from yesterday. That all right with you?" He's glaring, but I don't look up from my book.
"You're the one who brought it up. I couldn't care less what you do."
"Right..." He stops what he's doing for a second, wanting me to look up and see his smirk of disbelief. I don't oblige him.
And now comes the long moment of charged silence during which Keller is trying to decide what to do next. Should he ignore me, maybe find someone else to talk to until his laundry is finished? That option gives him the opportunity to have conversations that I can't help but overhear, and he uses it to plant certain facts in my mind, to be funny and to say things he thinks I'll regard as intelligent. On a more basic level, it exposes me to the smooth growl of his voice over an extended period of time, and he no doubt believes that has some sort of advantageous effect.
Should he taunt me, needle me, try to get me to react to him in some way? That's a more problematic option, but one he sometimes can't seem to resist. More often than not it backfires on him, and I dismember him verbally until he's an ashen-faced wreck, able to do nothing but stare and wonder why this isn't working, why nothing he's trying is working at all.
Or should he try the direct approach, the one I don't think he's ever had to use on anyone but me? Should he lean close, try to touch me, tell me that he knows I love him—as if all he needs to do is say it enough times, and then it will actually become true?
Whatever approach he chooses, it makes no difference to me. If I can manage to maintain the right frame of mind, I can learn something from whatever he decides to do. He's always on, always operating, and I'm nearly immune to it now. It's like a code I've cracked without his knowledge, so he, oblivious, just continues to use it. Maybe his problem is that he has no alternative code to fall back on.
I turn to the next page, even though I haven't read a word since he entered the room. What I really want to do is laugh, out loud, in his face. Does he have any idea how pathetically transparent it is of him to be in here with me again? He's leaning back against the washer next to mine, arms folded tightly across his chest. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see that his head is turned toward me. His stare is like something physical, a strong, clumsy hand roaming my body.
"So...you're going to punch me in the stomach, huh? I bet you're real broken up about that."
"You want out, Keller? I could always punch O'Reily instead."
"Nah, nah, it's no problem. I can take a punch. I can take a hell of a lot more than that." He pauses, then leans closer. "But I guess I don't need to tell you that, right?"
"Whatever. Do it or don't do it. I already told you I don't need your help."
"Hey, listen to me." He pushes off the washer and stands up straight to face me. "I want to fuck Schillinger just as bad as you do."
Now I just can't stop myself. The laughter that's been building deep in my chest completely escapes my control. My shoulders shake as I start giggling so hard I can hardly catch my breath to speak. "No, Keller... No, you really, really don't."
I glance up at him for the first time since he walked into the room. He looks confused and a little worried, like maybe he expects me to break out in a nursery rhyme or something.
"You know what? You know what really sucked about lying in that hospital bed all that time? I mean, beyond just the obvious—the excruciating pain, the memory of betrayal, besides all that? Everyone who worked there thought I was..." A fit of giggles stops me for a second, and I wipe tears of laughter from my face before I continue. "Everyone thought I was some goddamn Nazi. They all fucking hated me. And can you really blame them? With that fucking swastika tattooed on my ass? Can you blame them for not believing that I never wanted it there? Because, when you think about it, what kind of pussy bitch just lies there and lets something like that get branded so neatly on his ass unless he's asking for it?"
"Toby..." Keller's all serious, but I'm still choking and coughing with laughter. My arms and legs are throbbing now, too.
"What? You got another idea how we can take care of it, Keller? Maybe fill it in'?" I clutch my sides and nearly fall off the washer. That's got to be the funniest thought I've had all day. "You know, the more I think about it, the more I think maybe I should have taken you up on that generous offer. It would have saved me a hell of a lot of grief on the hospital, at least. Of course, I don't want a reminder of you branded on my ass for the rest of my life any more than I want a reminder of that fuck."
My laughter is slowly starting to subside, at about the same rate that the pain in my arms and legs is building. I guess it must be psychological; I can't think of any physiological reason why I would be in so much pain right now. I stretch my arms out carefully in front of me and begin massaging the left one, the worse of the two—the one where he broke the bone cleanly across the midshaft. He makes no effort to give me any room at all; he just stands there, still staring.
"Toby, look at me."
"Fuck off, Keller." I mutter the words without any real conviction. This is all part of it, all part of the act. I don't let him see anything I don't want him to see. When he moves a little closer, I force myself not to lean away. It isn't easy. I know he'll get as close as I'm willing to let him; if I just sit here, pliant and docile, he'll keep going until we're...until...
First, he'll probably try to get me to kiss him. Yeah...he's going to try to kiss me, because no one else is here in the room to see it. If there were someone else here, he would probably settle for simply trying to touch me—somewhere, anywhere. Usually it's my hair he tries to touch, although I don't really know why. I can feel what he wants right now. He wants to run his hand though my hair and then pull me close to him and kiss me, because it's all he can think about, right? Kissing me again? The fucking cunt, fucking conniving piece of shit...
...because he's a real pro, and that's what someone in his supposedly desperate situation might be likely to do. Oh, he's so in love with me, so desperately in love, he just can't help himself. So he'll come close, closer, even closer, even though I just told him to fuck off and now I'm sitting here rubbing my arm in the place where he snapped it in half. What balls. What a pro.
Does he think I haven't learned anything?
Maybe I need to show him how wrong he is.
His hand is hovering in the air in front of me, trembling just a little, the tips of his fingers twitching. Nice touch. I move my own hand, the one massaging my arm, and cover his with it.
His skin is so soft. Why does that always surprise me? What do I expect the skin of Chris Keller to feel like, exactly? It's warm and soft, just like always, and when my hand touches his, the trembling stops. I can tell he's holding his breath.
"Right...here." I guide his hand to my arm until his fingers are just brushing against it. "Right in half. Snap. Remember? Remember the sound it made?"
I'm all too aware of the fact that my whole body is shaking like the temperature in the room has dropped below zero. There's nothing I can do about it. Remembered fear, pain, horror, betrayal—having him touch me there is almost too much to take. I'm only human.
I never loved you. Not for a second.
I hold his hand, try to use it to keep mine steady. I move it closer, make him touch more of my skin. I squeeze his hand gently.
Let's see what you got.
"Does it make you hot to think about it, Keller...? Chris?"
He doesn't seem to understand the question, or maybe he didn't even hear me. He releases the breath he's been holding and stares hard at my hand on his hand on my arm. The look on his face is beautiful. Priceless.
"The way it felt, the way it sounded...my bones snapping in your hands? The culmination of all your hard work?"
His hand starts to move on its own. His fingers curl and begin to trace some pattern I can't see, something that maybe makes sense to him. He keeps getting closer, and now instead of warm laundry fumes I smell him, a smell I could never forget or mistake for anything else, as long as I live. The smell of the first time a man gave me a hard-on, of strong hands comforting me after a nightmare, of a stubbly cheek against my neck in the gym, in our pod at night, in my dreams. The smell of someone I looked forward to waking up to in the morning, of someone to talk to and play cards with and sit close to in the cafeteria, someone who wanted nothing more than to be with me, to look out for me and have me look out for him.
Liar. Lying cunt.
Looking at his face right now, though, I can almost believe...
Then don't look.
I look down at his hand again. His hands. He's touching me with both hands now, and I hadn't even noticed—one forming a warm curve cradling the back of my arm, the other caressing my skin, gently but without hesitation. I didn't give him permission to do this, not this. But his fingers move along the curve of my bicep and I feel it between my legs, where all the blood and sensation in my body is gathering and concentrating. He's so close I can feel his breath against my face.
"Toby," he says, in a half-whisper, half-purr that wraps around me like a blanket. "I could make you forget all about the pain. Just let me...let me touch you. I could make you feel so good..."
That mouth, that voice, the way it shapes the air between us to form the word "good"...I do want that. Who could ever be strong enough or hollow enough inside not to want that? I want everything he's offering and more, and it would be so easy...so easy...to give in and let him do all the things I think about when I wake up hard in the middle of the night. I want it. Am I really doing myself any favors by denying myself something that I want?
He's a professional. He knows what he's doing.
But... what would it hurt? What difference could it possibly make? If he touched me, put his arms around me, went down on his knees and sucked me off right here, right now—if I let him do that, what would have changed? Nothing, really. Nothing. And oh God...if I can just remember...who I am, who he is, what he is...it will be okay. Nothing will have changed. Nothing will change unless I let it, unless I make it...
"Toby, kiss me..."
He's so close I can taste what it would be like to kiss him, to let him kiss me. All I'd need to do is look up, tilt my head up to him, and we'd be there, right there again, except this time...
What? This time what?
This time, maybe he really does love me.
"I love you, Toby."
He says it at almost exactly the same time as I think it, and the effect is like lightning striking.
I remember getting to a point in law school where I was convinced I was pretty hot shit. Frankly, It didn't take all that long for me to reach that point. I'd always been smart, and I had finally arrived in a place where that meant something—meant everything. Sure, Harvard Law was teeming with people just like me, but I found myself more than able to hold my own. Probably for the first time in my life, I got really cocky. At the very least, watching The Paper Chase twenty times or so should have given me ample warning that, sooner or later, I was going to get taken down a few pegs. In spectacular fashion.
That lesson came one day in Complex Litigation seminar. I'd worked for weeks putting together what I believed to be a brilliantly inspired, air-tight, multimillion-dollar class-action suit against a medical equipment manufacturer, and I was anxious to present it to the class and accept the well-deserved adoration of the other students and the professor, Mr. Baxter.
I have to admit, I never saw it coming. I strutted up there in front of everyone and began to make my case, assuming an absolute certainty of victory. Baxter sat in the front row, his fingers steepled thoughtfully beneath his bearded chin, not taking a single note about anything I was saying. I imagined him as being won over to the point of speechlessness.
Finally, he raised his hand and proceeded to ask what I saw as a totally innocuous question. No, not even innocuous—it was a question that seemed almost specifically designed to make me look good. I answered it easily and continued, but before I was able to get much further he raised his hand again. And then again. I was able to answer each question without any difficulty, but, in hindsight, I realize it was at that point that the alarm bells in my head should have begun to sound. They didn't.
When I had finished presenting my case, there was a brief pause, after which the slaughter began. He started subtly, summarizing both my arguments and my answers to the questions he had posed. Then, point by point, he proceeded to dismantle every bit of it, using almost nothing but my own words against me. By the time he was finished, my entire case lay in ashes at my feet. I stood there shaking and sweating, and the other students in the class were clearly horrified, correctly assuming that they were next.
That night, halfway into a bottle of vodka, Baxter's destruction of my case played over and over in my mind, the subtleties of it becoming more and more apparent each time. The questions he asked had been perfect in every way—each one had played into my ego, my pride in the work I had done, and at the same time had lured me into dangerous twists of logic that had wound slowly around my argument until, at the end, the life and truth had been utterly strangled from it. He had used my own mind against me, and I had remained utterly oblivious up until the very end. All this he had managed to accomplish without any time to prepare his attack beforehand. I spent the rest of the night in a state of drunken, almost tearful awe. To be able to do something like that would require an elemental change in my thinking, something more than just an accumulation of knowledge and forensic tactics. I realized how pathetically unprepared for an actual courtroom I really was, how inadequate my education up to that point had been. Now I've seen what a real lawyer can do, I thought. I need to be able to do that.
Until Oz, it was probably the most painful lesson I ever learned.
The unbelievable genius of Chris Keller nearly lays me flat. The degree of expert manipulation involved in pulling off something like this, something like what he just almost did to me... My God, who have I been kidding? I'm an amateur compared to him. I lean back and stare at him like I'm seeing him for the first time.
To look at Keller, you would never guess. Jesus. And that's all part of it, part of his singular brilliance—coming off to the world like some none-too-bright pile of muscle, all self-important swagger and over-the-top flirting and bad grammar and brilliant, boyish grin. Of course, that's not exactly what he looks like right now. His appearance, his expression, his posture—they're finely tuned and appropriate for the situation, as always. Sad and contrite but hopeful, blurred around the edges with a dazed air, like he's lost in the moment, in the possibility of finally being able to touch me. But Chris Keller is never really lost in anything. You'd think I would have figured that out by now. He's no less in control now than he was that other day in this same room, when he sat there swaying drunkenly on the folding table and whispered that he loved me.
It probably goes beyond some skill one can easily acquire; it must come from a lifetime of near-constant practice. He's a perfectly calibrated, ultrasensitive instrument for the detection of human need and emotion; I imagine it's how he's survived as long as he has and accumulated three devoted ex-wives along the way, among other things. By now, it must come as naturally to him as breathing. Experience like that is going to be almost impossible to match, let alone compete with and overcome.
When he touches my face, I tighten my jaw against the unexpected sensation. He cups the angle of my jaw in the palm of his hand and his thumb swipes gently across my cheek, and then he's reaching around the back of my neck to pull me to him. But I'm back in control now, able to observe his actions without drowning in his influence. As he leans in, I use my cane to shove his arm off me and my other hand to push him away. I expect him to stumble backwards; instead, he just sways away and then sways back toward me. My lack of arm strength is infuriating.
"Get away from me, Keller. You've had your fun."
His expression darkens, his eyes come back into focus. He doesn't seem to know what to do with his hands now; clenching them into fists, he folds them across his chest.
I hop down off the washer and take a few limping steps away. The air seems cooler and easier to breathe the farther I get from him. "All I wanted to do was give you one last opportunity to admire your handiwork before I told you the good news. You're going to be moving to a new pod, so you might want to start packing up your shit now."
He had already been getting angry to begin with, so it robs me of some of my fun—some, but not all. The effect is a little like I just punched him in the gut. He's obviously reeling from this sudden 180-degree change in fortune; within just a few seconds, he's gone from almost kissing me again to having me shove him away and tell him he's moving out. I watch him carefully, drinking it all in and trying to savor every nuance—every twitch of muscle, every breath, every minute change in posture.
He's getting even angrier than I had expected, although I know it shouldn't surprise me. I almost never let him get as close to me as he just did, and I certainly never invite him to touch me. There's a nervous twinge deep in my gut as he crosses the distance between us and gets in my face, but I force myself to stare right back at him without flinching.
"Go ahead, Toby, if that's what you need to do. I got no doubt you'll pull it off, either, cause I bet you can work McManus better than anyone. But you know what I know how to do?" His lips curl into a smug little smirk. "I know how to read you. And you love me."
It's not easy to keep myself from plowing my fist into that smirking face. I'll get to do that soon enough. Instead, I just laugh, and it almost sounds authentic. "Think what you want, Keller. Now, if you'll get out of my way, my laundry's done."
His smile gets even bigger, and his eyes sparkle. "Your laundry's been done for a while now. Guess you were kind of distracted."
"Fuck you." I push him away from me without thinking, even at the same time as I'm realizing it's exactly how he wanted me to react. My face burns with hot frustration, and I turn away to get my clothes from the dryer, my humiliation compounded by the fact that my hands are still remembering the solidity of his body and are itching to feel it again.
I leave him there, sitting on the washer where I had sat, leaning back on his arms, watching me. Always watching me. Probably still smirking, too, although I'm not about to check on that. I wonder which part of the past half-hour or so he'll remember most vividly—the part where I first held his hand, that first contact? The part where he first realized he had free rein to touch me, to take my arm in his hand and run his fingers along my skin, without my doing anything to stop him? The part where he decided he was going to try to kiss me and believed that this time I wouldn't be able to resist? Or maybe he's simply going to bask in the overall satisfaction of having played me almost flawlessly, of having read my every thought and impulse as easily as if I had been broadcasting them out loud. Does he still derive a significant amount of satisfaction from his ability to do that, or has it been his primary means of interacting with people for so long that he barely notices?
I'm already carefully reviewing his actions and mine; when I can, I'll lie down in our pod and consider them and their implications much more thoroughly. I know that I'll never reach Keller-level proficiency in the art of human manipulation; in fact, it's starting to seem doubtful that I'll even develop the kind of immunity to his tactics that I once thought possible. Still, there's a lesson to be learned from what just happened between the two of us, if I can muster the patience to find it.
A jerky, black blur of motion across the room catches my eye, and for a moment Keller recedes entirely from my mind. Andy Schillinger is on the prowl for tits again, and the sight of him sharpens my focus on the ultimate goal. I stop to study his face as he crosses the room, but there's not much there to see. His expression is seemingly devoid of intelligence or emotion of any kind, and he takes little notice of me or anyone else as he makes his way around the common area. I try to recognize Vern in the blankness of that face, those eyes, but it's a different kind of blankness. Vern's lack of affect is cold, reptilian, and entirely without morality; Andy's is more like...
...that of a dog that's been kicked one too many times, maybe?
I'm not about to feel pity for a Vern-in-training, some shitbag junior Nazi who murdered a black man just for the fun of it. It seems clear that the Schillinger family cruelty has taken early root in this kid, but I have yet to see any intelligence or idealism there to provide an infrastructure for it. In other words, he's probably ripe for the picking.
I'll start off nice and slow, the way I've learned works best. He'll see me here and there, and I'll become the one friendly face, an oasis in a sea of hostility. He'll slowly learn to trust that impression...and then he'll come to depend on its reality. I'll show him that I'm the one person in this place who really cares what happens to him, and when he wakes up in the middle of the night in the throes of a nightmare or needing a fix, I'm the one who'll be there to soothe him. In the very beginning, he'll probably merely tolerate it when I touch him; soon enough, though, that tolerance will turn to acceptance and then, subtly, to desire. He probably won't even notice the change when it overtakes him, but one night he'll be torn from sleep by a nightmare and find himself wishing I were down there holding him. And I will be, up until the very end.
I limp my way around the guys gathered in front of the TV, cutting across the room and into Andy's path. I don't know exactly what I'll do once I reach him, but I feel infused with fresh determination to get the ball rolling. There he is, here I am, and there's no time like the present. He seems to be heading for the stairwell, having learned quickly the best place to find drugs if you're in the market for them. He may not be any rocket scientist, but he has a junkie's instinct for rooting out opportunities to score.
When I'm close enough, I stop him with a hand on his shoulder; he shrugs it off and meets my eyes with a feral glare. I withdraw my hand, giving him room without actually stepping away, and make my face and my posture project nothing but warm understanding. He needs to be careful, I tell him. I know what he's doing, what he's looking for—but so do the hacks, and they're going to be making a close study of his every movement for a while. He needs to watch his back.
He seems to experience an internal conflict between wanting to tell me to fuck off and wondering whether he should consider my advice. Then he glances over my shoulder, and I turn to see Murphy helpfully illustrating my point with a frank, warning stare directed at the two of us. Perfect. Andy looks back at me, this time with an expression filled with confusion and suspicion but much less hostility. I smile slightly and tell him that I know what it's like to get thrown in the Hole, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't want to be back there again anytime soon. People like us ought to look out for each other, I say, shrugging to show him it's really no big deal. Who the hell else is going to bother to do it?
With that, I turn and slowly walk away, leaving the idea of "people like us" hanging in the air for him to think about. When I reach my pod, I look back to see Andy shuffling reluctantly toward an empty chair in front of the television, and the warm thrill of satisfaction I experience at the sight catches me by surprise. I grin and then break into joyous laughter as I think of all the pleasure that lies before me, now that I know how to reach out and take it. Yes, there are plenty of different kinds of enjoyment to be had in life, if you only have the patience, creativity, and intelligence to appreciate them. Make use of them. Take them and twist them to your will; make them serve you, rather than you becoming a slave to them.
I shift my focus and watch Keller as he strolls slowly back from the laundry room. No matter what knowledge I come away from this place with, it will never take control of me. It will never turn me into a monster. Not like him.
But never let it be said that Tobias Beecher isn't a truly gifted student.
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