It was a sad afternoon with nothing to do. Holly was gone to a birthday party, Harry was back to Gen's parents place and Toby had been flipping the TV channels for a while before giving up.
Stepping inside his office he glanced at the little storage room between his bedroom and his office, rather a wide closet, crowded with old boxes, empty suitcases, dusty old books, Holly’s old dolls, a broken garden chair. A toy that had belonged to Harry.
It might be a good idea to do some housework, he thought, realizing he had nothing better to do.
“Fuck; it’s going to take me hours tidying up this mess.”
But the feeling of doing something useful pleased him.
He’d almost cleared up everything when he found the box at the top of the shelves, a brown cardboard sealed with brown scotch tape; his name written on one side with the hated number, 97B412 and inside, stuff from Oz.
Toby stood there frozen with painful anguish, his throat tight, remembering the day he’d been set free –definitely; granted an official pardon, thirteen months ago, two years after Oz was closed; two years spent in an overcrowded prison when he’d had to learn new rules of survival.
It had been a cold dark winter day just like this one, his brother’s new car waiting for him in front of the gate of the prison, and he remembered stopping just outside the gate, taking a deep breath, afraid it was just another dream...
He’d come back home determined to follow Sister Pete’s advice; forget and move on. And he had, even if unwanted memories tended to grab him at unexpected moments; while he was having a drink with his brother or… well, anytime he felt safe and free, when he was with a date; and there had been many of them; a good way to get some reassurance and fuck, he’d needed that.
He should’ve thrown the damn box into the nearest can from the beginning, but he hadn’t and now he had to face the past once for all.
“Come on, Toby, the time has come now,” he whispered to himself, grabbing a craft knife, “Let’s get rid of that shit.”
Once the box was open, the acrid smell of dust, old papers assailed him –the smell of Oz, and memories, the memories he’d tried so hard to keep at bay.
With a shiver he went through the content of the box. Letters from his fathers, forgotten books, more letters, pictures…
And a yellowed notepad. He opened it and pictures flooded his mind –Chris lying on the bed, looking at him, begging for more. Shit, Chris begging for more of something else than sex, Toby thought, that had been fucking unusual. He read the first lines. Yeah, hard to picture he’d been the one writing that shit for Chris.
Chris; how long hadn't he allowed himself to think about him?
It was hard enough to live with that particular memory, the one that haunted him no matter what; the vision of life slowly fading from Chris’ eyes, Chris’ smile freezing in the stillness of death; the realization dawning on him that there would be no further reconciliation, no second chance, no more harsh words, no more fight, no more long powerful fingers touching him. Nothing.
So burying himself willingly into the memories of Chris... He'd avoided that as much as possible like something potentially threatening for his sanity, the little he’d got left.
Finally he carried the box into his office and sat down, wondering what he’d begin with; at the very bottom of the box he found letters, three of them, sent from Cedar Junction and shit, just seeing Chris’ writing on them hurt. Not too sure he should read them again.
/ Come on, do it, you know you want to. /
The first two letters were barely readable; most of the sentences had been scored out by some stupid hack -or Vern, maybe?
But the last one...
Two words and he felt like breaking down, Chris’ voice echoing in his mind...
“Do you miss me as much as I miss you? I've been wondering about that a lot, Toby. I’d give half the years I’ve got left (hey, probably even more) to be back in our pod just for one day with you telling me that story; do you remember the story you used to write during that fucking lockdown? The story about the Greeks and all that shit? I loved it. Did you ever finish it? Probably not; things got rather bad between us after that, uh? But I remember I hated your dead lover Melas as much as I hate Saïd. I made you rewrite the first part because it was hot, imagining you at 19, long hair, long legs, running naked, me stalking you; I’ve been…” The word had been scored, but Toby knew. Jerking off. “…And I always wondered if Aristodemos was Adebisi? I wanted to ask you but forgot. Was he? Did I get to kill Vern finally? Did we have lots of wild sex? You said we would, right, don’t forget. Do you remember the promise you made; that we’d end together in that story? I wish you’d write some more and send it to me; just reading you keeps me sane, Toby; just thinking of you stops me from going nuts….”
Toby didn’t read any farther; there was just that much searing pain his tired heart could take and he could feel the cold grip slowly tightening around his heart.
No, he had never finished the story, when he’d got the letter Chris was back in Oz and Toby had more important things to think about, like keeping Chris alive.
Then he’d forgotten about it, erased the memories, for fear it was too painful; or maybe because he was too conflicted, torn between the memories of the Chris he’d loved and those of the Chris he’d hated; two irreconcilable sides of the same man.
Toby had to get up and step to the window, press his forehead against the cool glass, and breathe as slowly as possible, letting the tears run down his face; remembering how Chris had made fun of him that day when he’d cried in the library… He’d never know if it had only been a game to lure Vern into Chris’ trap; so many things he’d never know.
He’d promised to finish the story; he’d promised Chris they’d end together and of course he hadn’t kept his word. Not much of a surprise from someone who’d been ready to trade a false testimony for his freedom and sell out the man he’d loved.
Jesus he would’ve done that willingly; just that made him sick.
He walked back to his desk and sat down again, took a deep breath and opened the note pad; looked at the drawings, remembering when he’d tried to describe what a palestra, a Greek Temple, the Olympic stadium looked like and failed; Chris saying, “Draw it for me,” and looking at the shapes on the paper with close attention, then writing funny comments in the margins, stupid things that meant nothing to anyone but the two of them and still made Toby smile after so long.
Fuck I loved you Chris; too bad you’re not here anymore, there are so many things I want to tell you, show you, share with you; feel your heart beat against my cheek and your body against mine like a shield, your arms around me, my arms around you. Your warmth, your smell, everything.
Why did it still so much after three years? He’d thought he’d tamed the grief, the pain, but they’d just been hidden inside him waiting for the right moment.
Eventually he managed to read the whole thing, remembering the way he’d wanted the story to go on. But did it still matter? Chris was dead, what good would it do to him? What was a such a promise worth exactly?
On the other hand it was an oath he’d taken and he’d failed Chris too many times already; so maybe writing it would be a good idea after all; something he owed Chris; an opportunity to fix with words what had been broken; feel the bittersweet taste of memories, look for the right words to describe Chris, the words he deserved, untainted and grateful; make him the man he could’ve been with just a little more luck. Do him justice.
Bring him back to life.
With a determined frown Toby took the letters and the books out of the box; inside an envelop he found two pictures of Chris Sister Pete had given him long ago; the only ones he hadn’t burnt or torn up after Chris’ betrayal. Chris looked good on them; intent blue eyes, quiet expression, mysterious smile, nothing wicked or cruel; almost… sweet.
Turning his computer on, he opened the word processor and began working, the note pad and the letters and the books on the desk around him.
It took him a long time because he was in no hurry by now and he wanted it to be *good*; weeks and months went by as he resumed the long interrupted conversation with Chris, forgotten detail –the curve of his hip, his shoulder, his chin; the changing shade of his eyes- coming back to him; and how they used to make love, how good it was…
That’s how the story got written.