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Three Steps

by Ralu

Three. There are three small steps from the bunks to the toilet. Three steps.

You could close your eyes and still manage to find your bed, brush your teeth, piss and shit. Not one step less. No extra steps either. One doesn't even need his eyes, his senses anymore.

His pod is his home, his space; his body. The palm of his hand. His mind.

My mind.

Of course, you hate it. And everything that's inside it, occupying it. Settling inside yourself.

But it's yours. It's you. So is it such a big surprise that, at the end of the day, when you lay thyself down to sleep, you hate yourself?...

Three steps. And Beecher's counting them. *Still* counting them.

That means something. That *should* mean something, right? Still...

Beecher is still counting everything.


13 days. 12 days and 10 hours. 9 days left.

Marks on the calendar, if they had one to hang in their pod. But they don't. So Beech lies in his bunk at night, marking the days, the hours, the minutes in his head. Every goddamn second that separates him from IT.

Of course, Chris doesn't. Why should he?

"8 days," Toby says, holding up his hands and folding his thumbs in the hollow of his palms. "8 days and 5 hours." And he's not looking at him, he's looking through him; and then, back at his fingers.

Chris turns around and stares outside the pod.

Three steps. Two steps, back in Lardner. That fucking hellhole. Five, in Waka-whatfuckin'ever, up in Washington. At least, it didn't stink so much. Not that Chris ever cared about that. Three steps in Juvie. Twice.

The next day, group session with Sister Pete. The last group session meeting Beech's ever gonna have to show up for. Probably.

Chris knows he ain't the only one thinking this, as he sits there in his chair, feeling the muscles on his back strain and shriek, that fuckin' scar on his side (yeah, *your* scar, Beech) itching like a motherfucker.

"What I want us to do today," Pete begins her weekly routine with her usual "us" shit. Us WHO, Sister?

She wants *us* to talk about prior arrests, prior con-victions. Prior steps.


"How many of you have done time in prison before?" she asks, and it's fucking hilarious, that's what it is, deliriously fucking funny.

Eight guys, one nun - and only good ol' Toby doesn't raise his hand in the air. Fucking grade school.

O'Reily's smirking, hitting Beecher's thigh with his fist. *Playfully*. Did the exact same shit with Schillinger's boy a while back, Chris remembers it like it was a minute ago. Beech doesn't really seem to, though.

"I guess I'm the only one who hasn't already been a guest of the state, Sister," and she smiles back at him, that goddamn smile that's only his, Beecher's own little private smile. Fuckin' cunt, she never smiles like that at him, at any of these fucks in here.

The scar on the side of his back itches and burns, and he crosses his arms over his stomach, pressing over the wound with the tips of his fingers. Maybe the fucking thing will open and he'll bleed to death all over the place, drown the whole fucking prison in his blood.

"First time I got sent up, I was 19," this scrawny guy Keller only knows by sight says, "for car theft. But I was innocent." Fuckin' Unit B jerkwad nigger piece of shit.

"Sure, we're all innocent," O'Reily snickers, and Chris just has to LAUGH at that, or fucking explode.

They're all laughing, all but Beecher. He's not even listening.

Beecher's not there.

7 days and...yeah, I know. I fucking KNOW already!

Fingers digging deeper through the fabric of his shirt, nails scraping alongside the pale edges of the stab wound.

"Once, when I got busted for possession," O'Reily says, smoothly.

"How old were you?" Pete asks, rubbing the inside of her wrist.

Something's up.

"24," O'Reily replies, narrowed, green eyes scanning her like x-rays.

"What about Trentstow?"

What about Trentstow? Oh, yeah right. Trentstow. The good Sister's done her homework. She already knows.

Then why the hell is she doin' this?

"Oh, yeah right, Trentstow..." O'Reily drawls on that last word, leaning back in his chair. "Forgot about that. Minor."

Trentstow Juvenile Correctional Center. Completely unimportant, yeah.

Chris is a liar. O'Reily's a liar too. She knows that. She's counting on it. Their lives, their lies - right there, in that little file of hers. Names and places and court rulings. It's all they are. Dates and numbers.

Marks on a calendar.

She's doing this for Beecher.


She's waiting, small fingers curled around a notebook held on her lap. Fine.

"Twice at Trentstow. Then Lardner, Wakachuchu or whatever the hell is called, and this. Here." All in one breath.

The names, the places - that's easy. The numbers, that's a bit more tricky. He's getting old.

Some guys - most guys - like to brag about shit like that. How much time you've done, how many times you got arrested, how many different prisons you've been to; what you did to get there. Kind of like college guys, *professionals*. Hanging their diplomas on the walls of their offices to make a point out of how great, how prepared they are, Chris reckons. Just to show that you've achieved something, anything.

Chris is one of those very few screw-ups who don't see anything worth showing off in prison sentences or arrests. Or crimes. Never did.

Toby's staring at him for a couple of seconds like he's in some sort of a trance, then quickly looks away. Well, at least that got his fucking attention.

He's never told Beech about all the *other* places. He asked, just once, while they were in lockdown. Half-jokingly, looking at his pieces on the chessboard. So Chris chose the joking half, and lied. Anyway, this relationship's not exactly famed for its sincerity, right?

"At what age?" she asks.

"You already know at what age," he says.

"I want you to say it."


"13 and 15 at Trentstow, 17 at Lardner and 27...no, 28 up in Washington." Or was it 29? Sometime after marrying Angie, anyway.

O'Reily snickers again:

"I think you've broken a record, K-boy."

"And the winner is..." The faintest whisper, reverberating like a scream in the Cafeteria. Beecher stares right at him, straight into his eyes; and Chris stares back.


"What for?" she asks again.

"Well, it didn't have nothing to do with why we're supposed to be here for, Sister," he scowls at her, locking his arms around his stomach even tighter.

Except for the Wakachuchu King and Queen of Canadian marijuana bullshit. Or Lardner. Or Oz. Sort of.

Now...the reasons, the whys - that's the really difficult part.

"That's okay, Chris, you don't have to answer. We're done for today," Sister Pete says, evenly, looking at her watch.

Next to her, Beecher's looking away again. Counting on his fingers. 8 hours and 5 minutes.

Three steps, that's the distance between him and Toby. Three steps - and he could touch him, hold him, fucking break his goddamn limbs all over again. THAT would get him the fuck out of here for sure.

Instead he gets up, makes a step forward, two steps back, and leaves with O'Reily next to him and that black guy from Unit B hunching his shoulders like a kicked dog in front of him, mumbling something about that car theft and his girlfriend who never comes to see him.

While Beecher stays behind, talking in a low voice with Sister Pete.


7 hours later, Beecher's crouching over the toilet, throwing up. Second time in 3 days.

Three steps.

He wants to put his arm on his shoulder, but he doesn't. Instead, Chris crouches near the toilet, watching for the usually uninvited hacks to shine their flashlights.

"I'm fucking terrified," Toby whispers roughly, wiping his mouth with the ege of his T-shirt. Keller's T-shirt. They switch clothes all the time.

And he touches him, grabbing Keller's shoulder with one hand, covering the scar on his back with the other. Pressing his soaked forehead into the purple wound on Chris' chest.

"I know," Chris whispers back, even though he shouldn't. Because he doesn't. Know.

One hand clasped around Toby's nape, the other rubbing soothingly over his spine.

"What if I don't get out?"-- a short, manic giggle: "What if I do?"

What then?

Chris wants to tell him that he will get paroled, but that's bullshit. And, as much as Toby loves bullshit, this really ain't the time for it.

"If you get out, you get out," Chris says slowly, words melting against Beecher's burning neck, against his earlobe: "If you don't, you've got another chance next year, and the year after that." Smiling just a little: "They can't keep you in here forever, you know?"

88 years is forever. 15 isn't.

"I miss my kids."

Beecher hasn't cried since Gary's death. The restless nights, the nightmares, the insomnia, the bad days - they all never went away. But he's never cried since. Not once. Keller wonders for a small moment if he'll ever cry again.

"I know."

His fingers slide across Chris' scar, clasping over his pelvic bone.

"It's fucking terrifying."

Chris listens to his breathing for a couple of seconds, feeling the erratic heartbeat slowly settling down through the fabric of the T-shirt, imprinting itself on his palm.

"I know."

And he really, really shouldn't be saying that. But he does.

Three steps. Only steps Toby's ever known.

And then he crouches over the toilet again, throwing up.


It's funny how you can live in the same fishbowl with all these people, some of who you've known for years, some of who have known YOU for years, and still remain incapable of seeing below the surface, underneath the mask, the pretend.

Maybe it's one of those things they've got in common, one of those odd particularities separating them from people who would never end up in a place like this. Some type of protective screen which leaves them on the outside of all that it is taken for granted. Trust. Care. Intimacy. Maybe.

It's McManus, of all people.

Not Sister Pete, who has done everything but shouting in his face just how "potentially damaging" his relationship with Keller can be - become - be, not Father Mukada, who really, really doesn't like Keller one bit.

And definitely not Said. Toby's realized a long time ago what *boundaries* actually mean in a place like Oz, and especially with a man like Said. And he's learned to respect them, just like Said's learned to respect Toby's.

And Keller's learned to stay the fuck out of what doesn't concern him.

"Find your own fucking friends," Toby had told him once, at the end of a particularly nasty argument, right before storming out of the pod.

Well, Chris didn't. Not that he tried, in the first place. Or that Toby actually wanted him to.

"You're concerned about the changes that have occurred in your life since coming to Oz," McManus says, leaning against the window in his office.

Changes. That's a funny word, right there.

Toby can't help but remember for a split second that same window. Then - the desk. And Adebisi's smiling face, idly rubbing his thumb across the broken glass.

Oh, those good old times.

"And how those changes will affect what happens after you get out of this place."

"If I get out," Toby says.

McManus looks down at his feet and so does Beecher.

He doesn't know why he came. He doesn't know what he expected when he walked into his office. He simply doesn't remember.

Outside, leaning against the railing, Keller's waiting. He can see him, off the corner of his eye. Chris is waiting.


5 days.

He didn't get out the first time around, why should he now? Why would THEY let him out now? What has he done to deserve it?

What has he done *differently*? What makes him different, unlike the rest of them? What separates him from Rebadow, sitting here next to him, that scar on the side of his head shining unnaturally in the shallow, fluorescent light? What separates him from O'Reily, drowning in Miss Sally's cleavage?

What separates him from Chris, leaning against a wall, legs crossed and shoulders slumped forward, staring into nothing?

What are you gonna tell them, Toby? What makes you a better man? What makes you special?

Are you redeemed? Redeemable? Does that even factor into the equation? Should it?

5 days and 8 hours.

Chris has been acting weird all day, ever since coming back from whatever visit he had with which ever of those wives of his. It's gotta be one of his exes, nobody else ever comes to see him.

He avoided him. When he came back, he passed right by him; just nodded and went into the pod. Toby didn't follow him in.

"I used to think I was lucky when my sentence was commuted to life," Rebadow says, looking at his cards. "I thought I was lucky when the tumor inside my head didn't kill me. I'm not so sure anymore."

"You're the luckiest motherfucker around here, man," Hill replies, smiling.

Rebadow runs his fingers slowly across the scar on his head, looking at his cards again:

"Am I?"

On his left, Chris pushes himself forward, straightening his shoulders, and enters the pod.

"I'm out," Toby says, throwing his cards on the table and standing up.

"Something's going on," Hill mutters, a couple of minutes later, nodding towards Beecher's pod.

Keller's leaning against the back wall with his arms crossed over his chest. Beecher is asking something. It's calm, quiet. Unusual. Keller just shrugs.

"Of course something's going on, Augustus," Rebadow replies, shuffling the cards for the thousandth time.

The evening count finds Beecher in front of TV. Alone.


"I just wanted to see you."

It's what she says. The only thing she says.

"Keller, you've got a visitor."

He blinks at him, and Murphy almost rolls his eyes. Which one, he almost asks, but then remembers. They come in shifts, one each month. And Kitty's already came by last week, so...

It's none of them. Who then?

And then he sees her. And recognizes her instantly. Beecher's photos.

His mother.

Oh, fuck.

She looks awkward. No, that's not the word. She... She looks scared. Uncomfortable. Scared.

He runs the edge of his palm over his forehead instinctively, rubbing hard. Almost on queue, she does the same thing, then quickly places her hand on the table, straightening her shoulders.

One second, just one. He thinks of turning back and leaving. He doesn't have to do this, he doesn't have to see her, talk to her.

"My family...my parents," Beecher said one evening, after lockdown. After Gary's death, after Keller's little trip to Massachusetts; after Beecher's failed parole hearing. "I've told them about you. They know."

"Why? Why did you tell them?"

"I had to. I just felt like I had to."

Chris didn't push for more that evening. He didn't push for anything else afterwards.

A small tinge of hesitation, then she reaches for the phone, cupping it with both hands.

"Mister Keller, I'm...my name is Victoria Beecher. I'm..."

Calm, even. Respectful. If there is such a thing.

"I know who you are."

Hello? Glad to meet you? Not likely. He's not that stupid.

She breathes in deeply, a small, nervous sigh hiding underneath her ribcage. And he waits, looking at a spit stain smudged across the glass separating them.

"I don't know why I came," she finally says a couple of moments later, eyes transiently mapping the features of his face. His chin, his lips, his eyes. Meeting hers.

You came because Toby's coming up for parole. You came because he's gonna get out.

You came because you wanted me to know that. You came because you want something.

Or maybe you just came 'cause you wanted to see the guy your son's fucking. The guy who broke your son's arms.

That's why you came, lady.

"I guess I just... I just wanted to see you."

"What was it you wanted to see?" he asks, quietly, clutching his fingers on the receiver and biting his lower lip.

At that, she looks down, tired eyes tracing the contours of that same stain blurring the dividing glass.

"I don't know." Slower: "I don't know..."

He only nods, looking at her shivering hands, as she whispers back to him in the receiver "don't tell Toby I came, please", before hanging up and leaving the room.

So he doesn't tell him. What would be the point of that, anyway?

5 days.

Beecher's gonna get out.


Three steps. That's all it takes. That's all you need.

Of course, you can change that. You can pretend. Three steps can become four, if you try. Three steps can become ONE. But you gotta learn really hard how to fake that one.

The fourth day goes unnoticed. Unremarkable.

Beecher opens his eyes - six o'clock in the morning. Beecher closes his eyes - ten o'clock, lights out.

What's in-between, completely unimportant.

Alvarez comes back from Solitary. Again. He looks like a dead man, spinning around in circles. The Latinos ignore him. He ignores them.

"It's only natural," Chris mutters, slouching in a chair next to him, "Solitary can fuck you up pretty bad."

There's a new guy bunking with Hill, some stupid Middle Eastern fuck with a weird haircut and a love for slippers. Someone oughta tell him what happened to the last guy who wore slippers around here.

"He fuckin' smells, man. And he told me that *I* smell," Hill scowls, giving him the finger.

A racist Muslim. What a big let down for Said and the rest of the Muslims.

"Arif went out to greet him, being his sponsor. He spat on him and called him a dirty nigger."

Said's not just disappointed. He seems...tired. Worn down.

Another screw-up for McManus and his crew.

Without the Muslims, the guy's fucked. Every moron in here sees that; every moron except him.

Everybody wants to get their hands on a Muslim these days. And a Muslim with "Ali Baba" tattooed on his ass, well...that's a treat.

"He's fucked," Toby tells Said, watching the other man closing his Qu'ran.

"Yes, he is," Kareem replies softly.

Said doesn't want to save anybody anymore.

O'Reily proves, once again, how much of an asshole he can be. Especially when it comes to making some extra change behind the back of the Sicilians and the Latinos and who-fucking-ever.

Cyril gets left behind in the gym, all by himself.

Minutes later, Chris walks into Em City with him, almost holding the kid's hand.

"Is that your new girlfriend, Keller?" Hoyt throws, as he passes by him and two other bikers, heading towards the stairs.

Cyril stares back while Chris' grip tightens on his wrist, blue eyes widening like shiny coins.

Oh, my knight in shining armor.

"Take care of your brother, O'Reily, I ain't his fuckin' babysitter," he says, slightly pushing Cyril under the stairs where Ryan's drugstore's temporarily greeting its customers.

All he gets in return is a muttered "bitch" from under the stairs.

"That's why I love you," Toby whispers quietly in his ear, as Chris drags his chair next to him in front of the TV. Keller just stares back for a small second. And says nothing.

Miss Sally's bouncing on the TV screen again. Reruns.

And his mind goes blank for the rest of the evening.

Ten o'clock - lights out. Toby opens his eyes.

Three steps. He's surrounded by numbers. Not cement walls, nor Plexiglas doors or steel bunks. He's a prisoner of numbers.


He splashes water on his face, rubs his wet fingers across the back of his neck, through his short, curly hair. Avoids looking into the mirror. Only bad things can come out of that.

Out of it.

His reflection, like a spinning carousel, whirling through his lowered eyelids for a split second. Hidden, seductive. Stolen tinges of madness scraping from behind its clear surface, tingling waves on a dead calm dark sea.

Keep it together.

He wants to whisper it, just for himself. Just to hear himself whisper *something*. To know he's still there. But he doesn't.

Chris is behind him, laying on his bunk, watching. Waiting. For what, Toby doesn't have a clue.

"You okay?" He whispers the words, almost like he's afraid Toby may actually hear him.

He's been awkwardly...distant. So unlike Keller.

"Yeah," Toby whispers back, staring at his own fingers still curled around the edge of the sink.

He's okay.

"Move over," he says, slowly turning around, steadying himself.

And Chris cleaves onto the cold glass wall behind him, dragging his feet towards the edge of the bunk.

Sex is one of those few things in Oz that's not governed by the rule of numbers.


It takes days, months, years of routine to instinctively learn how the hacks work. See, the hacks, they're like watches. They've got their own timing, their own routine, intertwining with that of the inmates; mingling with Oz's routine. Oz's private rhythm.

At the end of the day, the hacks, the staff, the inmates - they all breathe the same air, choke on the same numbness. They all set their watch, balance their timing to Oz.

Oz sets the rhythm for all of us, whether we like to admit it or not. We're all one big not-so-very-happy family and Oz is our Father.

We're all bound to follow his rule, his natural law. He is ultimate. Sovereign. Overwhelming.

And, eventually, we all learn his coded language.

We all speak in numbers.

There is no other alternative; there is no choice. But death. And that's not such a great alternative, is it?

It ain't slow, but it ain't rushed either. It's beyond measures, beyond timing, beyond words and numbers and scratched marks on the wall.

Beyond Christmas cards, limited phone calls and visitation rules...and Toby will eventually stop coming to visit and Chris will never pick up the phone and dial his number anyway. And they sure as hell aren't going to be exchanging Christmas cards, are they? Probably not.

4 to 15. 50 to 88.

There's a soft moan buried beneath his ribcage, reverberating through his bones, making his skin shiver for a small second. And he presses his mouth against it, smooth lips brushing over flesh, over bone, over soul.

The second passes; the hours, the days, the months, the years. And it really is all in numbers, isn't it?

Not everything.


3 days.

His mind is rushing again. But his body's still. Composed.

It's all in the posture, isn't it?

He feels stupid. He feels unbelievably stupid, sitting there, looking at her. She should've been his. He should've been hers. They should've been...them.

She smells nice. (Sexy.) And maybe he could ask her out once more, and maybe this time around, he's gonna be able to keep his promise. And maybe he could tell her how nice she smells and ask her how her little boy's doing; and maybe she'd answer back. Maybe she would smile.

"I've got a good feeling, Toby," she says, looking through her briefcase. "I know I've said this before, but...this time around it's going to come true." And she smiles. "I've got a feeling."

But that's not the smile he was hoping for. It's not the smile he wants.

"You're meeting Catherine today?" Keller had asked, staring at him in the mirror. Long fingers stretched across his neck, razorblade sliding slowly across his jaw.


"Sure you are."-- tip of the razorblade stopping just below his ear, close to the carotid: "She's your lawyer." (Ain't like you're fucking her.)

But he is. Fucking her. When Chris isn't watching.

Just like he's fucking Gen, just like he's fucking Kirstin, his high school sweetheart, or Grace, that chick with an attitude who gave him a blowjob on the backseat of his car back in Harvard. All of them, phantoms of what he used to be, nervous, twitching scratches on the back of his mind reminding him of who he is. Yeah, of who he is.

Just like O'Reily's jerking off at night on Gloria Nathan's brief touch, her soft fingers brushing against his beating heart. Poison in his blood, flowing through his body like fire.

That's what he's doing when Chris isn't watching.

It's all in the posture, isn't it?

Of-fucking-course it is. After all, he's a lawyer. He's still a lawyer.


In the Cafeteria row, Chris rushes from behind, leaning in close. Too close. When Keller gently elbows him in the ribs, he can't help but scowl back morosely:


There's a short moment of confusion - yes, that's confusion, Beecher doesn't even have to turn around and look at him - and then Chris backs off, if only a little.


Keller's moods. Who the fuck can keep up with them?

He doesn't mouth one word during lunch. Not one. So Toby pushes.

"What was it you wanted to ask me back there?" he says, looking at him chewing on a chicken nugget.

"Nothing," Keller replies, staring at his sticky fingers.

"Chris, come on."

He's sitting across from him, not next to him. A sure sign he's pissed.

"Nothing, okay? Nothing."

Behind Keller's back, Schillinger's *admiring* his new acquisition, some dumb blonde kid with lipstick smudged on his mouth.

"Look, Tobias," he says, mockingly, making sure he's heard by the guys seated at both tables: "Doesn't she seem kind of...familiar?"

And on queue, all the Aryans and some Bikers start laughing.

He-he. He.

It's all a show, Toby knows that. He and Schillinger, they've been avoiding each other for almost a year. A more or less tacit agreement reached after those stupid sessions with Sister Pete to just leave each other the fuck alone. Too much blood between them. And besides, Vern wants to be *happy*!...

The newly reformed ultra-neo-protestant Vernon Schillinger, ready to forgive and forget...and isn't that what you wanted, Toby? Cradled in the arms of Jesus the Savior aka. Cloutier the Embezzler - now, THAT's a tough word, right there, Vern. Can you even fucking pronounce that? Motherfucker.

Keller doesn't turn around, doesn't say anything. But his eyes find Toby's, and there's that sign, that thing Chris does with his hands when they're arguing and the hacks show up. It's nothing, let it pass.

Toby doesn't know if it's reassuring or unnerving. Both, probably. The paradox of their relationship.

He's still attending those sessions with Schillinger and Sister Pete. And...they actually work. This time around, he's made sure to tell Schillinger about his parole coming up a *month* before. One can never be too careful.

Shit, he's never been *careful* around Schillinger. Not like Chris.

It's nothing, let it pass.

Okay, Chris. Okay. You're the fucking expert.


Schillinger's reciting from the Bible again. Does the same thing on each session, holding the book between his hands like it's made of gold. Some kind of a promise, maybe.

Toby wonders for an idle second if he should bring the Qu'ran with him the next time he comes. Maybe they could read together, pass each other tips on the best parts, most *appropriate* verses. That would be fun.

But there won't be a next time. Or would it?

It doesn't make much of a difference, really. Toby hasn't picked up the Qu'ran in more than a year. Or the Bible for that matter.

Maybe he ought to. Now. Strange how he always remembers God only he needs to.

"My daughter-in-law is coming over to visit tomorrow. She's bringing Jewel." He pulls out a small picture from his pocket, briefly rubbing his thumb across the edge. "I...I want you to see her," Schillinger says, holding out the picture towards Beecher. "You too, Sister."

Toby hesitates a little, then reaches and takes the small photo, cupping it in his palms. It's bent across the edges, a large fingerprint still visible on the child's frail figure. Looks just like his photographs. His *old* photographs.

Jewel's blue eyes sparkle from underneath a large, red hat, blonde strands of hair curling around her rosy cheeks. Looks a little like Holly. Just a tiny bit. Looks like any kid her age.

"Ain't she beautiful?" Schillinger asks, and the lines on his face become smoother, barely noticeable.

"She's a very beautiful little girl."

"She's the only thing I've got left. The only real reason I have."-- a beat, reaching over the table and taking the photo between the tips of fingers: "So I know, Beecher. I know what being free means for you, what it means for your little girl. And I want you to have it." Then, leaning back in his chair, that big, toothy grin spreading on his face - and Beecher still flinches: "There's nothing more precious on this world than making a little girl smile like that."

Toby releases a breath of air he didn't even know he was holding, rubbing his palms across his thighs.

3 days.

He watches in silence as Schillinger opens the Bible and starts reciting verses again.

Sister Pete's got every reason to smile.

The grace of God settles all over. For once.


2 days.

Toby recognizes this. What he's feeling.

"You don't know," he whispers back, climbing into his bunk.

Two hours left 'til morning count, no sleep whatsoever. He wonders idly if one can die of sleep deprivation.

"Why?" Keller's still up, behind him, shadow slipping across his body and over the glass wall. That's what Chris is. His shadow.

Can a man live without his shadow? Can a man live without constantly asking himself stupid questions in the middle of the night?

"Why what, Chris?" He really, really needs to stop doing this. He really needs to get some sleep. He's needy like that.

A needy little bitch. Schillinger called him that once. So did Keller. Once. Well, this needy little bitch's getting the fuck out. Not Vern. And definitely not Chris.

He closes his eyes and he forgets.

(Keep only what's real. Keep it inside. Keep it only for you.)

And he remembers again.

2 hours of sleep is better than nothing.

Toby recognizes this. What he's feeling. Or better said, what he's NOT feeling. Same thing he experienced all the way back in Harvard before some big exam, some oral presentation. Or his first parole hearing.

Same thing that happened after Gary was buried. The calm before the storm.

He is ready. He can deal with it. He can deal with everything.

He is ready.

"Hey, Beecher," O'Reily says, leaning against the table Toby's reading his book in the library: "So you're coming up for parole, huh?"

"Again," Toby replies, eyes still glued to the paragraph he was reading.

"Think you gonna make it?"

"Everybody seems to think I will." He looks up at O'Reily and smiles. Most reliable friend he's ever had in this place. No, make that 'connection'.

"Well, I hope that *everybody* is right on that one," Ryan says, squeezing his shoulder just a little bit before signaling his brother and walking out.

And Toby forgets what he was reading.

Dinner call finds him lying on his bunk, staring at the ceiling. Keller's just outside the pod, talking to Rebadow; Toby can see him off the corner of his eye.

Time freezes sometimes. Especially in a place like Oz. People arrive and people leave and people never go anywhere. He lays still for a couple of moments more, watching the world spinning in circles around him.

He could keep his eyes open, never blink - not once - and Rebadow would still be at the same table, Chris would still be there, slouching beside him. He could close his eyes and never open them again; they would still be there.

Seconds stretched into eternity. Seconds bearing nothing. That's what he'll bring out of Oz with him. That's the legacy.

Only thing Oz has to give.

Certainty's always felt like a big rock tied around his neck, sinking him deeper. You are a husband, you are a father, you are a lawyer. You are a son and you are a brother. You are yourself. Forever.

In here, certainty lies in a number attached to your name, in the hours between morning count and evening lockdown; in what you have for breakfast and what you have for dinner. In Sister Pete's perfume settling all over you as she leans over and the hacks' bored stare following you around, just like they follow Chris or Rebadow or O'Reily. Any of them.

He's indistinguishable. A human stain on the Plexiglas walls defining their world; their cage.

Certainty lies in that blurry image slithering off the corner of your eye of two men sitting together at a table. Forever.

"Hey, does Dorothy ever make it back home to Kansas?" he mutters on his way to the Cafeteria.

Chris half-turns towards him, bowing his head a little:



"Yeah, Beecher. It was only a dream, don't you know?"

"That was in the movie," Toby replies softly, sticking his hands in his pockets. "Not the book."

"Didn't read the book."-- a soft tinge of anger hidden beneath a growl: "Dream or reality... What the fuck's the difference anyway?"

And he is right. Dreams are reality, and reality splinters into parallel dimensions all colliding and caving in onto one another.

Dorothy could fall back to sleep again at any time. And never wake up.

Oz is everybody's illusion. And everybody's reality.

In the Cafeteria, Toby watches it all like it's his last time. Or maybe his fist time. He looks up at the ceiling, counting the cracks across the corners, down at the long table in front of him, stretching like the tongue of some dead animal.

He looks at the Christians sitting at a table in front of him, then at the Muslims, seated behind them. And the Aryans, all crammed together over their meal, all the way back towards the exit way.

He catches Said's eye over Alvarez's shoulder, avoids Schillinger just as Schillinger avoids him.

A sudden painful moan turns his attention towards his own table. Rebadow cups his jaw in his palm, wrinkles on his forehead sharpening for a small second.

"I think my teeth are starting to rot," he says, pushing away his food tray.

"I'm amazed you still have your teeth," Hill snickers, chewing loudly on an apple.

"Yeah, I guess that is somewhat amazing," Rebadow replies, rubbing his fingers slowly across his jaw.

He will rot. Eventually. Everything rots. It's not cruelty, it's not cynicism. Just a simple fact of life.

And Toby knows he didn't use to think like this. Or did he?

He's learned it in Harvard. Actually, he's discovered it a little earlier, while still being in high school. Some big exam's coming up, some major event - as major as ANY event could be to a teenager - he cools down. He...lets go. Forgets, if only for a couple of stolen moments.

In here, moments turn into hours, hours into days. Sometimes into years. Sometimes they only last for a second.

That's the funny part about prison. Time's elastic. It stretches and skews, floats above you and curls closely around your body, around your mind, sheltering you. At some point, once you've scraped the remains of how the world REALLY turns, you can bend time. Time can become your best friend if you know how to. If you let it.

The marks on the calendar become scars on your body, hidden just beneath your skin, little reminders of...everything, really. And it's only when you let yourself slip up that the scars become aching wounds again, that tiny watch hidden beneath you skin ticking a little louder, a bit faster. And you know.

You're bent. Not time. You.

He knows he didn't use to feel like this. That he knows for sure.

He looks sideways to his right, watches through half-hooded blue eyes. A strong arm covered in worn out dark fabric, long fingers curling over a piece of bread, elbows firmly placed on the table.

And then he hears him. Soft, barely muttered words, shaping around Toby like wax:

"You oughta eat that. You haven't touched it since we got here."

"Yeah," Toby whispers back, and Chris looks at him for a brief second, mustering just the tiniest smile.

2 days. 1 day.

No more.


It takes Beech three days. Three fucking days.


Come back, walk into your pod, wait for evening lockdown. Three steps forward, three steps back. Lights out - close your eyes. Fall asleep. Dream.

And then wake up again.

He's fixing up his tie, slithered eyes watching him, crawling across his face like a spider. He's done this before.

Half-persistent/half-absent blue eyes hiding beneath that hypnotic myopic maze, and he doesn't know, he can't, he doesn't... He can never read Toby when he looks at him like this.

"You should wear your glasses," he tells him, brushing his fingers over the shirt's collar.

He looks so different in his dark blue suit and a tie. And the glasses...Chris has only seen him once wearing them, right after a meeting with his father. "A gift from my parents," he had said, going over some papers after evening lockdown. Easter cards from his kids, a letter from his folks. Chris didn't ask if he could read them, Toby didn't bother to know if he wanted to.

He looks terrifying.

"You sound just like Gen," Toby mutters, warm breath sliding over the back of his hand like the edge of a razorblade, raising hackles.


And then something cracks. Behind him, behind the absence spreading like a dark shadow lingering across the walls, something inside comes together. A mounting wave of emotions exploding beneath his gold eyelashes.

"I love you," he whispers very, very slowly, eyes gazing into Chris'.

It's not rushed, it's not demanded; it's not a promise either. It just is.

Some things are real and some things aren't; just the way things are. Just the way things have always been.

And some things just are.

Chris knows that. But he ain't sure Toby does, though.

He just nods a little and tries to smile. Just a little, Chris. Just a little.

Some things are real and others aren't. And if you try hard enough, the edges separating them can get blurry enough for you to ignore their own existence. Your own attempt.

"I think Said wants to talk to you," he says, looking over Beecher's shoulder, outside the pod.

"Said can wait, Chris."

And he grabs him, fingers clutching against his shoulders, trailing across the muscles on his back, digging hard at the base of his neck, through his hair.

Three steps become endless. Enough for you to forget they're even there.

And then he's out.

And Chris waits.

He sees Said reading from the Qu'ran at a table, surrounded by his toy soldiers, he sees Hill shuffling the cards at the next table, sitting quietly near Rebadow and Busmalis. He catches O'Reily's eye as he passes him by, going nowhere.

They're all waiting.

Everybody's counting *something* in Oz, just that it ain't the same thing.

Three quarters of an hour later, the buzz rings, the gates open. And he's back.

All Chris wants to do is scream in his face "I know, I know, I know, I KNOW, I KNOW, I KNOW!!!"

You think I don't know? I know you do.

He's got so much anger inside him, so much that he could stack it all up and build himself a goddamn ladder of fire. The words, the smiles, the sex, the bodies, all that fucking pain and all the absence - and climb all the way up to the Moon, over these fuckin' walls, beyond. Out of his fuckin' mind. And sometimes he just needs this, sometimes he just HAS to have it in others. He's needy like that.

To see that look on someone else's face.

It don't make him a better man, it don't make him worthy any more than he is a sinner. But Chris already knows that. He ain't better, he ain't good. He ain't even close. So what's the fuckin' point?

Toby. He don't know that.

Yeah, right.

You want me to pretend for you, Toby? You want me to put my arms around you and say I'm sorry? You want me to tell you you've got another year coming, and another year after that? And another? And another? And that one year, or two, or ten more fuckin' years don't even come *close* to fifty? Is that what you want me to tell you?

I know that's what you wanna hear. It's what keeps you counting, it's what keeps you near. It's what keeps you alive.

But sometimes Beech just doesn't want more bullshit. Sometimes he just doesn't *need* bullshit.

You want me to leave you the fuck alone? I know you do.

For now, anyway. 'Cause...where the fuck are you gonna go?


He comes back, walks into his pod, waits for evening lockdown. Three steps forward, three steps back.

(Open your eyes.)

"I used to think I was lucky when my sentence was commuted to life," Rebadow says, looking at his cards. "I thought I was lucky when the tumor inside my head didn't kill me. I'm not so sure anymore."

"I think you've already said that before," Beecher mutters, looking at the scar on the side of the older man's head as bony fingers slowly run across its pale white edges.

"Have I?"

Off the corner of his eye, Toby sees him, lying on the bottom bunk, watching them. And then he sees himself through his eyes, two men sitting at a table together. Lights on, lights off; and then on again. Forever.

It takes him two minutes and 50 bucks. And then he hides under one of those staircases nobody ever bothers to look and it takes him another couple of minutes.

Oblivion. If only for a couple of moments stretched into eternity.

Until evening count shakes him up. Of course.

He feels strong arms roughly grabbing his body, Chris' smell slithering through the lingering vapors of alcohol, his lips muttering something in his ear, something he can't quite decipher. Something he doesn't want to hear.

"Yeah, fuck you too," he whispers, trying to push Keller back, only to have the other man pushing him into the wall behind him. Hard.

"Get a fuckin' grip on yourself, Beecher,"-- and THAT, he does hear, hazy blue stare crawling onto Keller's face. "Hacks find out you're drunk, you're goin' to the hole. Parole or no parole, get it?" Chris throws back, fingers clutching around his wrists.

And Toby gets it.

Murphy watches him from the bottom of the stairs as he tries his best to keep his balance.

Don't lean against the wall, don't lean against the wall... (Don't throw up.)

98J448. 97A413. 65R814. 98B242.

You're nothing but that.

98K514. Chris' fingers are still firmly clutched around his right wrist. (Just where you broke it.)

97B412. Time freezes for a second. Mineo half-turns towards Murphy, Toby's eyelashes flutter dimly against the sharp, fluorescent light reflecting across the pavement. His eyes hurt.

He knows Murphy's looking away, nodding slowly.

And Chris lets go. (It's nothing, let it pass.) Only to slightly push him back inside the pod.

Okay, Chris. Okay.

His eyes hurt, his eyes hurt, his limbs...

"Don't fucking touch me there," hissing through his teeth, pushing the weight of his body past Keller through that narrow space - three steps, only three steps - steadying himself before climbing into his bunk.

He doesn't give two shits about what Chris does, what Chris thinks. What Chris wants.

He knows what Chris wants, anyway.

"Just need to get some sleep," he mutters, turning on his side, facing the Plexiglas wall. One large spit stain smudged across, blurring everything.

"I know."

Just the faintest whisper, buried just beneath his mattress.

But Toby doesn't hear it anymore. Never did.


3 days later.

He's dreaming again.

Same dream - over and over and over.

He's wearing his dark blue suit, his white shirt and his tie. His hair is close clipped and his glasses hang on his nose like they've always been there. Like nothing ever happened. He looks at them, they look at him - and they only see what he used to be: the hair, the suit, the glasses.

They believe him. He believes himself.

And everything else disappears.

He wakes up back home, in his old bed. The sunlight filters smoothly through the wind shades and he can hear the children playing outside, in the backyard. And then...he hears her. A quiet, gentle murmur reverberating through the walls, slithering beneath the white sheets, engulfing him.

She's downstairs, going through the kitchen closets. Singing.

He leaves the room and tries to go down the stairs.

Too many steps. He doesn't remember this many steps. The staircase widens and skews underneath him, feet slipping between large cracks of concrete closing in on him as his fingers clasp over the broken railing.

Then he hears it, from upstairs. From where he came.


But it's not her voice. It's not her calling his name. And Toby doesn't wanna go back there, never, never, never go back there. Oh, God. Oh, God, please... (don't)

Same dream - over and over and over.

And eventually, he climbs back up, lies in his bunk, closes his eyes. And dreams of endless rows of numbers stitched on his skin. In blood. And hopelessness.

Three steps forward, three steps back, three steps forward, three steps back...

"COUNT!" Lights flickering just for the tiniest, most perverted moment. (When you still think it may all be nothing but a bad dream.)

"You okay?" Chris asks in a low voice, as Toby lines up next to him, still rubbing his swollen eyes.

Three days. Or maybe just two. Or maybe four.

97A413. 65R814. 98B242.

What the fuck's the difference?


"Yeah," he mutters back, bright flashes of light mellowing around the edges, slithering across the corner of his eyes.


Yeah. He's fine.

Dorothy can fall back to sleep again at any time. And never wake up.

So Toby forgets how to. And he stops counting.

He's bent time under his fingertips, for time has simply ceased to exist.

Perfect harmony. Oz's beauty. Its gift.

(Toby's fine.)

Toby's just fine.

---the end---

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