It’s getting to him, Chris can tell. Thirteen days deep and no sign of it ending anytime soon; days always suck in Oz, but especially during a lockdown. In the daytime, with the lights of Em City spotlighting every move they make, there’s not much to occupy them except for the little things they find to do, and there’s not a whole lot they haven’t tried. Wrestling is out, and they’d pretty much given up on chess, having played so many times the paint was peeling from the tops of the pieces. The days in lockdown are endless, marked only by the way they spend the nights; last night it was Chris kneeling on the floor, his head bent low, his tongue buried deep in Toby’s ass, thrusting one finger into Toby’s mouth to keep him quiet, to stop him from shouting aloud.
It worked, that time. But it’s getting harder and harder to keep things inside.
Right now, Toby’s bent over the trunk at the foot of the bed, rummaging through his stuff, most likely looking for something, anything, to keep his brain occupied. It’s a wasted effort. Chris has already been through that trunk, item by item, and knows there’s nothing of any interest in there.
“Jesus, Toby, would you cut it out already?”
“I don’t have any clean shorts.”
“So sleep naked. What’s the big fucking deal?”
“It’s fucking inhumane, that’s what the fucking deal fucking is. Christ. Is it so wrong to want clean clothes to sleep in, for God’s sake?”
He’d told Chris, during one of these long, indistinguishable days, that at home he’d always worn pajamas to bed. “Nice ones,” he’d said, as if the distinction would matter to Chris. “The kind your parents give you for Christmas, you know?” Then he’d snorted. “Seems like another world, now.”
Chris had just laughed. He couldn’t agree more.
He doesn’t remember any particular Christmas; the ones from his childhood were all mostly the same. Christmas Eve meant Midnight Mass. Though he could usually wheedle his way out of most things where his mother was concerned, this one annual ritual was set in stone. Hundreds of candles, nubby white ones glowing on every available surface, making everything in the room seem vague... Chris would sit stiffly on the hard wooden bench, uncomfortable in his church clothes, his mother’s fingers like chisels drilling into his knee if he squirmed too much or too often. At that hour, the tall, narrow stained-glass windows were dark, their colors muted, the stories they told somehow less significant than they seemed in the daytime. Father Scarpello, a short, round man with deep grooves in his face, would thunder and roar from his pulpit, raving about sin and Satan and all of the other things that good Christians should fear. He would preach about the battle between God and the devil, a battle that had been going on since the beginning of time and which, apparently, still hadn’t been won. Bored and unimpressed, Chris would close his eyes and imagine the two of them, God and Satan, crossing swords like knights on a bloody battlefield -- both equally powerful, with the bodies of hundreds of their slain followers littering the field on either side.
Chris doesn’t know what Christmas would have been like in Toby’s world, but he’s willing to bet that it wasn’t anything like Christmas in Oz. Especially this particular one, which Toby had spent languishing in the infirmary, bleeding from Schillinger’s blade. But he *is* willing to bet that whatever that difference is, it probably accounts for at least part of Toby’s current pissy mood.
“Beecher. Sit the fuck down and chill out. What the hell is wrong with you?”
Toby slams the trunk shut and turns, abruptly, to face Chris. “He’s going to come after you, now.”
The mood, the tension, it all suddenly makes sense. In the end, everything always comes back to Vern.
“It don’t matter.”
“It *does* matter. When is all of this going to end?”
“When it ends,” Chris says, matter-of-fact. “Or maybe it won’t. Maybe we’ll just have to kill the son of a bitch, once and for all.” He shrugs carelessly. “The world would be better off.”
Toby stops moving, and stares. “And it’s that easy for you? You feel no guilt at all?”
“I don’t believe in guilt, Beecher. I believe in me.” Chris takes hold of Toby’s arm roughly, and pulls him close. “You and me.”
Over the years, Chris had learned to distract himself by ignoring the sermons completely and watching everyone else in the church, instead. When the priest’s big voice threatened doom and apocalypse, the people around Chris would shudder, or cower, or cover their mouths. But when he spoke quietly, of love and forgiveness and redemption, everyone suddenly smiled, sat up straight, and heaved tiny sighs of relief. Chris found all of this fascinating. And most intriguing of all: when the long-handled collection basket came around, pew by pew, Father always spoke then of Jesus, of His pain and suffering and selflessness, of the way He gave up all material possessions in order to give Himself over to God. By the time the collectors reached Chris’s pew, the basket would be overflowing with cash.
Chris learned a lot from going to church.
”Toby, c’mon. Come here.”
He drags Toby around the corner of the bunk, pushes him up against the wall, the most privacy they’ll ever get in this place. Down onto his knees before Toby can even begin to protest, ripping into his pants and taking Toby’s cock deep into his mouth. Toby struggles a bit but it doesn’t last, Chris is too practiced, too skilled, and it isn’t long before Toby’s hands fall, uselessly, from Chris’s shoulders, his head dropping back against the wall.
Without breaking pace, Chris glances up at him. Toby’s eyes are closed now, his face turned up to the ceiling as if in prayer. It’s not much of a gift, but it’s one he can give, this moment of forgetfulness, this hiatus from his life -- to make him feel something other than grief, other than hate. Nobody knows how well this works better than Chris himself does, even if it’s only temporary. Sometimes temporary is all there is. And it’s always better than nothing at all.
Later, when Chris grew too big for his mother to do anything about it, he’d simply get up and walk out of the church. He knew she wouldn’t get up to find him, knew she’d never walk out on Mass before receiving communion, certainly not on Christmas Eve, so he would head toward the bathroom and then duck out the side door. He’d meet up with his buddies behind the rear of the church and they would light up, inhale, exhale, feeling grown-up and rebellious and invincible. Chris took to cigarettes right away. He liked the way his breath and the smoke would become one in the cold night air. It made him feel like he could breathe fire.
One time, when he was fourteen or so, it had begun to snow. He’d tossed the cigarette aside and turned his face up, sticking out his tongue. The cold snow tasted new, and clean, and unspoiled.
He’d never tried it again. Tasting the snow made him feel guilty, in a way the sneaking and lying never had.
When the lights go out, Chris pushes Toby down onto the bed and fucks him hard, so hard the bedsprings threaten to break, so hard his own muscles scream in protest. He knows it’s exactly what Toby wants: to feel pain, to feel punished for whatever it is he thinks he’s done to Schillinger’s son, and it works exactly like it’s supposed to. Toby claws at him, begging for more, digging his heels into Chris’s back. There are tears in his eyes. Chris touches them, makes them his, because it’s all they have. All there is. And even Chris’s hand over Toby’s mouth isn’t enough to stop the words from coming this time: I love you, Toby says, over and over, as if to convince himself that it’s true. As if they both might forget in the morning.
His mother would always find out, of course, and then she’d make him go to confession. He liked the confessional, though; liked the unrelenting blackness of it, and the way it smelled, of sin and snuffed matches and sweat. In fact, the whole ritual pleased him; the reversing of roles, the self-important priest now a captive audience, forced to sit, poker straight and uncomfortable, on a wooden bench on the other side of that wall, hanging on Chris Keller’s every word. He liked the way his own voice would penetrate that holy silence, rough and unyielding, the sound itself a kind of blasphemy. He’d spend the better part of an hour in there, telling the priest every last thing he could think of in pure and revolting detail -- listening, always listening for the way the Father would clear his throat nervously, for that strangled gasp of horrified surprise.
Whenever they met outside of the box, Chris would smile broadly at Father, and wink. The priest’s face would blanch and he would turn away quickly, as if Chris’s handsome, young face frightened him. As if he’d seen the devil himself.
They fall asleep together on Chris’s bunk. Chris dreams of Christmas, of church, of his mother coming around the corner and finding him with a cigarette in his hand. He wakes with Toby wrapped tightly around him, as if it’s the very last time they’ll ever be together like this -- as if, somehow, he knows. Chris lies there and breathes, in and out, in and out, absorbing the heat rising from Toby’s body. He runs his hand over that body, because he can, because he earned the right to. Because Toby is his.
Fuck guilt. There’s a door in his brain, and he shuts it, slams it hard, walls it up. Childhood memories don’t mean shit now, and Schillinger’s son gets no sympathy. Little Andrew is no more than a ghostly dream, vague like the church in Christmas candlelight, a pawn played, an obstacle removed. All that matters is this. Toby’s skin is warm beneath his hands, his heart is still beating. It’s all they have. All there is.
Toby is awake now, Chris can sense it. He turns his face into Toby’s neck. With his eyes closed, it’s still night; the day hasn’t come.
“I’m responsible for Andrew’s death, Chris,” Toby says quietly. “So are you.”
“I have to find a way to make up for that. So do you.”
Toby extricates himself from Chris’s arms, sits up, throws his legs over the side of the bed. Chris lets his hand fall across Toby’s naked hip just as the lights come on.
“I’m serious, Chris.”
“So am I. Fuck that.”
Toby pushes his hand away, and rises. “No, fuck you.”
It’s an argument they’ve had a dozen times, will probably have a dozen more, and Chris isn’t interested in it right now. Instead, he crosses his arms beneath his head and simply watches Toby, the way he frowns, the way his hands flex into fists, the way anger colors his skin. There’s a thrill in it, knowing they will fight again, in this war that is never won; Toby never stays down for long. It’s one of the things Chris loves about him. A battle between them will never have a predictable outcome.
“You love me, Toby.”
“That’s the point.” Toby sighs. “He’s not going to leave us alone.” He pulls on his shirt from the night before and moves to stand in front of the glass wall, looking out into the quad.
“It don’t matter,” Chris says again. He gets up too, and moves behind Toby, leaning one arm on his shoulder. Together they stand there, side by side, gazing out at Emerald City. Their battlefield, littered with bodies. “Those fucks out there? They don’t mean a goddamn thing, Toby. Nothin’ matters but you and me.”
Toby turns to look at him, silent, his eyes filled with pain. Chris leans over, kisses him, and remembers the taste of snow.