There's a hole in Keller's chest, about halfway between his shoulder and the place where his right ribcage meets his left, the entrance to a tunnel that leads to the centre of his body. Once, a bullet burrowed inside it, and burst his rotten core into a tiny blossom made of bone shards and broken blood vessels, and killed him, and killed him again; now it begins and ends in scar tissue.
The hole is the first thing that he notices every time he looks at himself in the mirror; it's as though it's somehow closer to the glass than the rest of his body—or brighter, maybe, sharper and more in focus. It draws the eye.
Seeing it never reminds him of getting shot, but it always reminds him of dying.
“You wanted to see me, sir?” Keller grins at Querns—sitting at his desk with his hands folded in front of him—who doesn't smile back.
“Keller,” he says. “It seems that we have a pod opening up in Em City. Now, I understand that you've been clawing at the door to get back in ever since you were released from death row.”
“That's right, sir.” And this time Keller doesn't even smirk when he says it. He's polite and respectful. He stands up straight.
“Good,” and now Querns does smile. “Beecher should be settled in Unit J by now, so you can move in to his old pod as soon as you're ready.”
So Keller returns to Em City.
He takes the top bunk this time. He needs a change.
After a few weeks alone, Keller is given a new roommate. He introduces himself as Tariq Hassan.
Fuck, Keller thinks. A fucking Muslim.
He was hoping—well, he was hoping for Toby, for him to come to his senses: this shit with the Aryans has blown over and anyway he can deal with them if he has to, he has a plan. Realistically, though, he was hoping for a wiseguy or at least a homeboy or, fuck, maybe even an Aryan. Anyone he can lend a sympathetic ear to and then fuck over big time to McManus for a free trip to Unit J.
But Hassan here sure as shit wasn't going to be pouring his pious little heart out to Keller about all the dough he's been raking in selling tits, or the prag he snuffed to keep from talking after he and his buddies gang-banged him. Hell, Keller will be lucky if he's even able to jerk off in his own bunk at night without a lecture about keeping his soul pure or some shit.
Hassan unrolls his prayer mat and gets on his knees.
“You gotta do this, like, five times a day, right?” Keller says. “Why?”
“Please don't disturb me,” Hassan says. Smug bitch. He reminds Keller of Said and for some reason that makes Keller like him a little bit.
Toby once told Keller a story about Said.
It was right after lockdown – right before everything went to shit – and he and Toby were playing what must have been their billionth game of chess in two weeks. Keller was winning; it was easy to move Toby's pieces when he was so distracted, staring outside their pod during Keller's turn to see if anyone was watching them. When Toby was completely sure that no one was looking he hopped up from his chair and climbed into the bottom bunk with Keller, and kissed him; every few seconds he'd glance over his shoulder and Keller would kiss his neck and collarbone. Eventually Toby would lose his nerve and return to his chair. It was stupid, like they were kids or something and Toby's parents could walk in any minute. Keller loved it.
The third time Toby did this Keller was startled by a loud banging right next to his ear. He turned his head and saw Said glaring at them. When he turned back, Toby was already back in his chair.
Keller walked to the front of their pod to stare Said down—but Said had already joined the other Muslims on their hands and knees in the common area and when he rose his upper body from the floor he was looking up into the heavens, far away from Keller.
“It's a ritual,” Toby said from behind him. He didn't sound angry, like Keller; he sounded distant, and sad. “It reminds you to think of God all the time. To live for him.”
Keller turned around to look at Toby. He was gazing at Said with a kind of longing—which should make Keller want to kill that motherfucker, but it wasn't for Said. Keller didn't know what it was for.
“Said told me that he went to Mecca once, five years ago, and that's where he saw the light and the glory of God for the first time. He told me that all of his life since then has been about trying to get back to that feeling, to remember it and hold on to it. But he can't—he can't hold on. It always slips away. Do you think that gives his life meaning or takes it away? I mean, everything before that moment, everything after—”
Toby trailed off. He looked down at the chess board.
“You've been moving my pieces,” he said.
Toby didn't kiss Keller again until lights out.
Keller arranges a session with Sister Pete.
He arrives early. She isn't there when he gets there—she's at a meeting, explains the guy who isn't Toby who is sitting in Toby's chair, and it seems to be running late.
Keller remembers that Guy Who Isn't Toby is that sheriff from Unit J and thanks Christ for small favours that he's an unfuckable geezer. The sheriff introduces himself as Alvin Yood and holds out his open palm.
Keller shakes Yood's hand and thinks about how this man sees Toby every day and suddenly he's filled with a feeling of rage so intense that he really thinks he might just kill this folksy asshole right here and fuck the consequences. Hell, now that Glynn's gone maybe Toby would be allowed to visit him on Death Row—or, at least, attend his execution.
Keller can picture it:
Sister Pete will be there, Kitty and Angelique too, and maybe even Bonnie if she's well enough. But if any of them are there he can't see them: they're too far away.
He'll see Toby, though. Yeah, Toby is sitting in the back row but, somehow, Toby is closer to the glass than everybody else. He looks so bright. He looks Keller in the eye.
He isn't crying, because this isn't a sad moment—
“Good afternoon, Chris.” Sister Pete walks through the door behind him and Keller trembles as his rage leaves his body like a ghost. “What brings you here today?”
“Making new friends.” Keller lets go of Yood's hand and turns to address Sister Pete. “Forgot you got a new assistant. 'Bout time though. That last one was nothing but trouble.” Keller gives Yood a conspiratorial smile. “Bet you had a lot of old messes to clean up your first few days, huh?”
“Chris,” Sister Pete says. And, to Yood: “I think you're done for the day.”
“You take care of this lady, OK?” Keller says cheerfully, giving Yood a friendly pat on the shoulder as he passes Keller on his way out.
“Uh, sure. Nice to meet you.”
“So, Chris,” Sister Pete says when Yood is gone. “What's on your mind?”
“Oh,” Keller says. “Nothing in particular.”
Keller thinks often of Cedar Junction. His recollections of his time there are tinged with a sort of wistful nostalgia that has nothing to do with the prison itself. He remembers his time there the way he does his dreams: as a state of mind that lingers long after the details of people and places and events have been lost to oblivion.
He felt dead there, too; but being dead in Cedar Junction was different than being dead in Oz. It was cleaner. Every day is the same, either way, but in Cedar Junction the remainder of Keller's days had crystallized in his mind into a single solid object, like a monument to what he did for Toby. He knew that if he spent half of all his years there they would still only amount to a single sentence tacked on to the end of the story of his life: “Chris Keller lived out the rest of his days and died in Cedar Junction Prison in Massachusetts.” It didn't matter how he lived there; one day he would die there and it would be for love.
He's not going to die there, though; he's going to die here, in Oz, where the days bleed into each other like they've been spilled haphazardly across the floor. Puddles meet puddles and eventually become lakes. Days meet days and eventually become years.
Toby will be released one day.
Keller feels like he's drowning.
“How's the old man?” Keller nods his chin at the crucifix on Sister Pete's wall. “He treating you right?” Keller grins. “Satisfying all your needs?”
Sister Pete rolls her eyes. “Chris,” she says, warningly.
“'Cause if he ain't, you know I'm right down the hall—“
“Aw, come on.” Keller mock-pouts at her from under lowered eyelashes. “You can't tell me you haven't thought about it before.”
Sister Pete leans back in her chair, her arms crossed over her chest, regarding him coolly. “Are we really doing this again?”
“Guess I'm feeling nostalgic,” Keller says. “You ever feel that way? Say, for when your husband was still alive? You know, wishing you could turn back the clock to when you were a coupl'a dewy-eyed young lovebirds and the world was your oyster?”
“All the time.”
“But if you'd stayed married you'd've never found your true vocation.” Keller says. “Never have felt God's love, am I right? Ain't everything supposed to feel empty next to that?” Sister Pete opens her mouth to speak, but Keller cuts her off. “You telling me that you long for a time when you hadn't known his—his heavenly embrace? Ain't that a little like longing for Hell, Sister?”
“God loved me before he called me into his service,” Sister Pete says. “He loves you, too.”
Keller looks down and sighs. His shoulders hunch as the air leaves his body; he feels as if he's deflating—every day he gets a little bit smaller.
“I guess what I'm really wanting to ask here, Sister, is this,” Keller says, meeting Sister Pete's eyes again. “Can God un-choose you?”
“Nobody is beyond redemption, Chris.”
Keller doesn't give a shit about redemption.
“Thanks, Sister.” Keller smiles and stands up to leave. “You've made me feel much better.”
When Keller is bored—which is often—he seeks out one of a handful of Em City's youngish and semi-decent-looking citizens in the gym or the common area and casually brushes past with a hand on the neck, whispering invitations into their ears in a voice soft enough that they can pretend, if they want, that they didn't hear him.
Keller fucks them in the storage closet, bending them over until their hands grip the shelves, the metal leaving painful-looking red indentations in their skin—softer than most of the guys in here, just like Keller likes it, just like—
But sometimes they don't bother to show up—it's been happening more and more often, lately—and Keller finds himself waiting alone in the closet with his dick in his hand and his ghosts gathering closer and closer around him, tickling his skin like insects. It's during these times that Keller allows himself to think of Toby.
The last time they fucked, Keller had just returned from the hospital ward and Toby was a mess about his kids getting nabbed. It felt different than it had before, more urgent—like they had been floating together in still water, only to be suddenly swept up in a powerful and irresistible current. Keller was going to burn in Hell and Toby's kids were probably dead, but there was nothing they could do about it from here—so Toby pulled Keller up onto the top bunk and wrapped his shaking legs around him, and when Keller thrust into him the bed frame rattled precariously, like it was perched on the needle-sharp spire of a skyscraper: one wrong move and they would tumble down, down, down. Afterwards, Toby buried his face in Keller's chest and kissed his bullet-wound again. “I love you,” he had said, in a tiny voice, over and over again, as though the words could tunnel into Keller's chest and eat away all of the rotten shit inside of him, hollowing him out until he's light enough to float away.
“Do you think they'll be OK?” Toby asked him later, after Keller had thought he had fallen asleep.
“Of course,” Keller said. “I know Schillinger. Trust me: it's just a bluff.”
“Yeah,” Toby said. “You're probably right.” And he nuzzled his face into Keller's shoulder and drifted off to sleep. Keller couldn't follow him; he couldn't shake the feeling that he was still swimming upstream—that if he let his guard down or stopped struggling for even a second, his head would fall below water and he'd never be able to get back to the surface.
It's less than a year, now, until Toby's release.
Keller looks at the door of the storage closet and imagines it opening. He imagines that Toby walks in—maybe on some work-detail related errand, maybe he's looking for Keller, it doesn't really matter why—Toby walks in and Keller hides in the shadows, where Toby can't see him, waiting for Toby to shut the door so that Keller can grab him from behind and push him against it.
But Toby has been in Oz for a decade and a half and has lived with the threat of Aryan retaliation hanging over his head for nearly as long—of course he's carrying a weapon; he isn't stupid. Keller knows he isn't stupid.
Toby pushes Keller against the wall. His knife enters the hole in Keller's chest like a beam of light shining into a dark tunnel. It feels like a kiss.
Keller swings his arm from his side in an arc and buries his own knife in the side of Toby's neck. Toby's head slumps forward until it rests on Keller's shoulder; Keller reaches up with his left hand and grips the hair on the nape of Toby's neck gently with his fingertips.
Their blood spills on to the concrete in two little puddles that expand, drip by drip, until they meet and become a little lake that splashes around their feet.
They slide to the floor together, sinking down further and further, either man holding his knife inside the other, bleeding all over each other.
Toby doesn't say goodbye.
“I'm sorry, Keller,” McManus had said, when Keller asked him for an escort to Unit J so that he could give Toby a final farewell. “Beecher's brother picked him up an hour ago.” His eyes darted around, unable to maintain contact with Keller's for longer than a second at a time. “I, uh—I think he thought it would be easier. On both of you.”
“Yeah, I guess he's learned his lesson,” Keller said. “Good for him.”
Keller had thought for sure that he would feel it when Toby was gone. But everything feels the same and nothing has changed.
There's a scar on Keller's chest, keeping him alive, warning off death with the threat of the vengeance of God.
“You know me,” he'd told Toby. “They stab me, they shoot me, I ain't going down.”
He didn't know it was a curse.
Keller sees the scar in the mirror every night when he washes up before bed. He thinks about Toby kissing him; he thinks about dying. He tries to decide between Hell and here. Every night, he decides: here. He'll wait around a bit more—just a little longer. And every night he sees the body that surrounds the scar gets a little older, a little weaker, a little smaller; the scar, though, stays the same, like the hard pit that's left over after the soft fruit around it has rotted away. One day there will be nothing else left of him. Looking in the mirror, Keller realizes that day isn't very far off.
Keller thinks he hears his joints creak as he climbs up into bed, and he realizes that it might be time to bite the bullet and ask his cell mate to switch bunks. He doesn't even know why he's held out so long—what's he thinking, exactly? That some young buck is going to take one look at him lying there on the bottom bunk and get the bright idea to make old man Keller his bitch? Yeah, right. He's just clinging to old ways, obstinately refusing to bend over long after the time when even the loneliest jack-off in this joint might want his ass has passed; it's unseemly, he knows, but the truth is that he doesn't even know who he is now that no one wants to fuck him anymore. He never thought he'd have to think about it. He never thought he'd live this long.
Would Toby still want him?
Would he still want Toby?
It doesn't really matter. Keller's not getting parole until he's—what, eighty-seven? At least. He imagines seeing Toby standing at the gates outside, waiting for him, leaning on a cane again. Rain is pouring down like a motherfucker, but he remains outside: he's looking up at the building like it's a giant whale that might come to life and swallow him whole.
Then Toby sees Keller and a different expression crosses his face: serious, bold, just a little nervous—just like the way he looked at Keller from the opposite balcony all those years ago, when he told Keller that he wanted him back. He's telling him again.
They walk to the car without touching each other. Keller complains about being released in the middle of fucking monsoon season, just to break the tension. Then Toby tells him how the rain makes his bones ache and so when it rains he thinks of Keller, and then the rain belongs to Keller and he loves it.
They don't talk about where he'll be staying. Toby drives him to his house. He tells Keller that he's lived there alone since the kids moved out. He tells Keller that it's too big for one person.
In the foyer they finally kiss and the years they've spent apart just collapse like a decrepit old bridge under the weight of it. Keller closes his eyes and they're in Oz again, sneaking kisses under the fluorescent lights, and Toby's still wet from his shower.
They change into dry clothes and Toby makes them coffee. They drink it in the living room, in front of the fireplace. Toby holds Keller's hand and tells Keller that he forgives him—he forgave him a long time ago, but he stayed away out of guilt: guilt for leaving Keller behind, for staying away for so long, for being free while Keller rotted in that hell hole.
At night they lie down in Toby's bedroom—not to fuck, just to hold each other. They fall asleep in each other's arms and, for the first time, they spend the entire night together in the same bed.
In the morning, Keller is woken up by a blinding shaft of light pouring through a small window high above Toby's bed. It shines on him for just a few brief seconds before a cloud passes over the sun, returning the room to darkness.