Beecher, Said (gen) with side orders of Beecher/Keller and Said/Tricia
Beecher watched as Said picked at his lunch with desultory indifference. He hadn't wept openly again since that first night, but there was a constant red-rimmed weariness in his eyes now, a lack of certainty in his carriage that was unsettling to witness. Because if there was one thing Beecher had become intimately acquainted with during his time in Oz, it was humiliation -- but somehow seeing this proud man humbled was almost more than he could take.
"You know, you're a lot more fun when you're arrogant and insufferable," Beecher tried lightly, hoping to provoke at least some kind of reaction.
Said looked up from his tray, wary amusement flickering briefly across his face, but it was quickly replaced by a solemn mask of non-expression. Beecher turned slightly in his seat to follow the track of Said's gaze and saw Hamid Kahn leading the Muslims in a close group across the cafeteria. Almost all of them had marked their switch in allegiance by sporting the red, black, and green kufi that Kahn favored, over Said's simple, unadorned white.
Of Said's former flock, only young Nassim Bismilla even spared so much as a glance in their direction. From what Beecher had been able to glean, Bismilla was the last to leave Said's side, and his distress was still evident as the group marched purposefully past. Beecher watched the silent communication between them: Bismilla's eyes, imploring and apologetic, Said's return smile, tight, small, and gently reassuring.
"Study group," Said said quietly under his breath, casting a wistful glance at the large, caged clock mounted high on the wall next to the PA speaker. He shifted in his seat and rose suddenly. "I think I'd like to take some silent meditation time, Beecher. I hope you don't mind..."
"Nah," Beecher waved him off, picking up and opening the copy of the Qu'ran he'd had on the bench seat beside him. "Go. I'll do some reading. I'm fine."
Said nodded his thanks and went off towards their pod. He was too stoic to talk about his rift with the rest of the Muslims, and Beecher didn't want to press the issue, especially since it was pretty clear that his own fledgling interest in Islam had been at least a contributing factor in the split. That, and all the ridiculous furor surrounding Said's visits with Tricia Ross.
Said had never spoken a word to him about Tricia, but whatever the truth of the matter, Beecher found it hard to believe any visiting hour flirtation could possibly warrant the degree of outrage that had fomented across the prison. Sure, racial tensions were running even higher than normal in every unit, but the substance of the leveled accusations: goo-goo eyes and hand holding? This was a major scandal? Even taking Muslim modesty into account, it strained credulity.
"Hey, Beecher." O'Reily clambered over the bench to slide into the empty seat beside him.
"What do you want?" Beecher sighed as O'Reily poked him with an elbow while leaning back to dig an apple from the pocket of his end-of-shift food-stained kitchen work pants. But in spite of his annoyance, Beecher almost smiled watching O'Reily bring the apple up to buff against his narrow chest -- there was something oddly fitting about O'Reily's fondness for Red Delicious apples so perfect they were worthy of being dipped in poison by an evil queen. No doubt some shady arrangement had been made with Oz's produce contractor to keep him in good supply.
"What'cha reading?" O'Reily asked, leaning in as though he were genuinely interested in the pages spread open on the table.
Beecher briefly considered a wisecrack, but stopped himself. Said had commented more than once during their talks about his overreliance on hostile sarcasm. An easy defense mechanism that created distance, kept you closed. Duh. But, still.... He settled on a noncommittal shrug.
O'Reily nodded and bit into the apple, crunching through his next words. "And so, what, you're really doing this stuff now?"
"This stuff?" Beecher raised his eyebrows in a manner that, if he wanted to be completely honest with himself, was offered with at least a certain degree of sarcasm. But in O'Reily's case, there was only so much one could do.
O'Reily gestured with the apple before swabbing at the juice running down his chin with the back of his hand. "You know, Muslim stuff," he clarified, swallowing.
Beecher drew a long breath and debated whether he should even bother trying to explain. It wasn't as though O'Reily actually cared. More than likely, the question had come about for the simple reason that Beecher's newfound friendship with Said was a noteworthy curiosity in Em City, and O'Reily had an autonomic reflex for gossip.
"It's just a book."
"Right. Look, whatever, man." O'Reily stood to leave, but then paused a moment, pretending to study the half-eaten apple in his hand. "Just... wanna make sure you don't start getting too religious on us, is all." He aimed a meaningful look back down at Beecher, the name 'Andrew Schillinger' hanging heavily unsaid in the air between them.
"What's done is done," Beecher replied, hoping his words were just as carefully weighted even as he fought the bile rising sourly in the back of his throat. "You and..."
He broke off momentarily, eyes searching for -- and unerringly finding -- Keller, sitting with Hill a few tables over. He tried, and failed, to squelch the instantaneous physical response he still felt at the sight of Keller, that sickly hopeful little lurch in his chest followed immediately by the angry stab of pain that always seemed to settle into a jagged, aching throb in his still imperfectly knit limbs.
As though he had some kind of sixth sense where Beecher was concerned, Keller looked up just then, the laugh he'd been sharing with Hill dying off as his eyes narrowed and locked onto Beecher's with one of those tractor beam stares that Beecher could practically feel, pulling at him with gravitational intensity.
But the pain won out. Liar. Beecher gave his head a clearing shake and returned his attention to O'Reily. "You have nothing to worry about, not from me."
"If you say so." O'Reily bit into the apple again as he turned to walk away.
Beecher let out a sigh and tried to go back to his studying, but the text seemed to swim in front of his eyes. His head was pounding now too, veins working in his temples. The aches, the nausea...he was falling apart.
And there was no escaping it, was there? None of it. Not ever. Not Andrew Schillinger, or his father. Not Metzger, or Keller, or Genevieve, or Kathy Rockwell. All the debris of all his messes and mistakes was going to just keep piling up around him, because in Oz there wasn't anyplace for it to go.
He rubbed at his burning eyes and tried again to focus:
Allah guides those whom He wills, and lets go astray whom He wills.
Beecher still wasn't sure what it was, exactly, that he thought Said could help him with. Under any name, God had always felt more like a remote abstraction than anything real. Growing up, his family had attended church more or less regularly, but chiefly because that was what nice Episcopalian families did. Like their relationships with one another, it was cool and bland, with no passion behind it. Then, when he'd first landed in Oz, when Schillinger had started... he'd tried talking to Sr. Pete. He still talked to Pete, but there was something weirdly obsessive about Catholicism that frankly gave him the creeps. Even Sr. Pete herself, and Father Ray, were sort of mysterious, cloaked, and spooky.
Perhaps it was as straightforward as the fact that Islam was just foreign enough to his previous religious experience to feel like he had a clean slate going into it, but guided by Said, the dependable rhythms of five-times daily ablutions and prayer made Beecher feel for once like he was actually focused on doing something good for himself.
Obviously, the Muslims didn't have all the answers. Judging by Said's ouster, they were just as subject to bickering, jealousy, and politics as everyone else. But Said... Said had been willing to take a chance on him, even at the risk of angering the others. Sure he had his faults, but Said did believe in something. And maybe that was what Beecher wanted more than anything, what he hoped Said could teach him. The ability to believe in something again.
The dull buzzer sounded, ending the lunch period. Beecher closed the Qu'ran and went to wash up for afternoon prayer.
"I don't have any shame left, Kareem." Beecher shrugged. He looked down at the stairs and hesitated before continuing, turning his cane in his pale fingers. "Whatever Schillinger didn't outright rob me of, Keller pried away. There's really not much anyone can do except kill me, at this point."
Which they well might do, Said thought gravely. He was considering his response when Adebisi ambled by, chewing on a toothpick. He stopped at the foot of the stairs, looking up at where they sat. In a pair of tattered khaki clamdiggers and a white oxford shirt with the sleeves torn off at the shoulders, together with his rubber flip-flops and precariously canted knit hat, Adebisi looked like some sort of crazy shipwrecked castaway.
"Well, what do we have here," he nodded up at them, chuckling in his easy Nigerian drawl. "Our two very own tarnished noblemen. Suddenly you look so... alone."
"What is it you want, Adebisi?" Said could feel Beecher's wary, shifting discomfort from the step above.
"Just a friendly word of advice. Watch your back, boys." Adebisi pursed his full lips around the toothpick, then grinned widely, clenching it between his teeth as he scuffed away.
"What the hell was that supposed to mean?" Beecher asked, leaning forward to watch Adebisi's progress through the common room.
"I'm not entirely sure," Said hedged. Beecher was in a poor enough state already; there was no point in causing him undue worry. But all Said's instincts for unrest, honed by years of organizing and participating in social agitation, were warning that once again, the ground was shifting beneath them.
"Having no shame can be a good thing," Said said abruptly, steering back to the topic of their original conversation. "Liberation from the narrow expectations of others."
"Yeah, well I guess singing torch songs in a bad dress will do that for a guy."
Said coughed on a laugh. "I suppose that it would."
Beecher's sense of humor continually slipped in under Said's radar, catching him off guard. His work with the Muslims had always been a sober and serious business. And as Imam, he was responsible for setting an example, for being a leader, conducting himself with dignity at all times. It didn't leave much -- any, really -- room for play. But, Said had been relieved of that responsibility at the moment. And it hadn't taken long for Beecher's frequent dry observations to become an unexpected pleasure.
The Odd Couple. Said had heard the snickering reference several times across the prison already. And looking at Beecher, with his blond hair, pale blue eyes, and preppie WASP profile, he supposed that on the surface it was true. But there was something Said had found in Tobias Beecher that he hadn't even realized he was missing until this past week, when they had really had the chance to talk. Beecher was a peer. A genuine peer.
When Said talked to Beecher, he didn't need to worry about constantly stopping to re-explain things in simpler terms. Oh, Arif was bright enough, certainly, and had great potential but... he hadn't been at his studies very long. And that, sadly, had turned out to be true for so many of the brothers here. Most of them had been shoveled indifferently through an inner city public education system that had clearly never made excellence a priority. Instead they had grown up idolizing basketball stars -- the flock that had gathered around Jackson Vahue when he'd first arrived in Oz was testament enough to that. Studying the Qu'ran, learning the Hadith and the prayers, was more often than not the first time any of these men had been asked to really apply their minds with any rigor.
On the outside, Said had at least had a circle of friends and compatriots of his own choosing. But inside Oz? Life had grown very small. It was one of the reasons, he realized, that he had responded so powerfully to Tricia, and not just to her sweet beauty -- although there had certainly been that. But her entrance into his life had also marked hope that he might still be a whole man, beyond his activism and teaching, something he hadn't even dared to think about since turning down Governor Devlin's tainted clemency. Without even being consciously aware of it, Said had given up on part of himself. And here, in the midst of this dispiriting personal crisis, had limped Beecher.
Personality-wise, in a funny way, Beecher reminded Said a little of his first love, Marilyn Crenshaw. Another attorney, interestingly enough. Men like Beecher, women like Marilyn, they had been raised with such a radically different set of assumptions about what to expect from the world, a kind of innate assurance in their own value that Said was drawn towards. Because for a young Goodson Truman growing up in the ghetto, success had been far from a foregone conclusion.
Fortunately he was gifted, and instilled with a strong work ethic by his father, he'd managed to forge opportunity where there was no obvious path. But instead of simply providing entree into the sort of life Beecher or Marilyn had been born and groomed for, the college scholarship he'd earned became a bewildering mix of joy at the freedom to indulge his appetite for knowledge and experience, colored always by a commensurately growing rage at what he saw when he looked back over his shoulder at the world he was leaving behind.
Too many of the friends he'd known had died on the street, or struggled with a futureless existence. Too many brothers and sisters would look at the odds against them and give up hope. Ultimately, rejecting the majority religion of white America and converting to Islam, taking up the cause of social justice for his people and dedicating himself to a life of service, became the only road Said could see to follow.
But sometimes he missed long afternoons of simple laughter and good-natured debate. He missed being able to just relax in the company of a friend. Well perhaps, just perhaps, he had managed to find that after all.
Beecher's guilt and remorse over what he had so chillingly termed "Operation Andy" plainly overwhelmed him at times, especially when he'd been left with too much time alone to think. Again and again, he seemed shaken by the knowledge that he could have possibly been so bitter and consumed by his hatred of Vern Schillinger, that he not only fantasized such a vicious plot against his son, but actually saw it through. ("It was like something got a hold of me, Kareem, that made it seem so obvious and clear. I destroyed this kid with logic and diligence.")
He had sunk into one of his black moods that evening, snappish, impatient, short-tempered.
"Do you want to talk?" Said offered tentatively as they sat down at the table with their supper trays.
"No," Beecher glowered, "not especially."
Keller approached their table and made a move to sit down, but Beecher dismissed him rudely.
"Well that's kinda stupid," Keller said, casting a meaningful glance over towards where Schillinger and the Aryans were massing. "You need firepower."
"Go away," Beecher repeated more forcefully, reinforcing the sentiment with a wave of his hand.
Keller glanced at Said, as though perhaps expecting intercession. But this had to be Beecher's call to make.
"Fuck you both," Keller muttered, walking away.
Said watched the exchange with interest. Keller remained the most enigmatic piece of this whole equation -- both for the violence he had helped Schillinger perpetrate against Beecher in the past, and for what certainly appeared to be undisguised pursuit of Beecher's forgiveness now. It didn't quite all add up. And while Said had never wanted to know the particulars of whatever unwholesome attraction had or hadn't existed between the two of them, it was easy to see that Beecher would never be free of his guilt until he found some kind of closure there.
"Beecher, you came to me wanting to learn how to get closer to God because of your part in the death of Andrew Schillinger," Said started carefully. "The guilt you carry can only be lightened by forgiveness."
For the first time that evening, Beecher looked hopeful. "I want to be forgiven."
"So, you must forgive. Schillinger, and Keller."
"I can't." Beecher shrugged, defeat written across his features.
Said saw the conflict and pain in his eyes, but remained firm. "Beecher, you must."
Beecher paused for a moment, playing with his food. "All right, what about you?" he asked pointedly. "Don't you have to forgive Hamid Khan?"
Said was momentarily taken aback by the challenge in Beecher's voice. But then he twisted around in his seat to watch Kahn sitting at the other end of the cafeteria, surrounded by the men who used to call him Imam. Turning back, Said regarded Beecher critically. A peer indeed. He conceded the point with a nod.
Said spent the rest of the meal period like Beecher, withdrawn in thought.
Looking over at Kahn had sparked a rush of disturbing emotions too conspicuous
to dismiss or ignore. He was of no use to himself, to Beecher, to anybody
while his spirit was so blocked with anger. He had slunk around Emerald
City licking his wounds long enough. It was time now to put himself right.
Nothing could have prepared Beecher for the experience of watching Said purge himself of shame. Just on a pure spectacle level, it was awesome to behold, as Said stripped himself down, bare headed, bare chested, prostrating himself on the common room floor in front of everyone, crying up his supplication to Allah. But there was more than that too, a lightness and freedom shining in Said's eyes, and Beecher knew immediately: that was the peace of coming clean.
Galvanized by Said's example, Beecher headed towards the computer lab to approach Keller. But still he hesitated outside in the corridor at the last moment, cross-examining his own motives, searching his heart for the truth. He had thrown out that challenge to Said to forgive Hamid Kahn at least in part out of fear -- a defensive fear of the awful enormity of what Said was asking him to do. But this was no game of righteous 'chicken', it couldn't be. He had to want this for himself, for real. And Said was right; how could he ask God's forgiveness without being able to look squarely in the mirror at himself? At what he'd become, what Oz had turned him into; a wild, vengeful creature, distorted and twisted nearly beyond recognition.
No, Beecher knew now that before he could be forgiven for the things he had done, he first had to face within himself the man who had slashed Metzger to bloody ribbons with his bare hands, stabbed Keller in the skulking darkness of the supply room, and most sickeningly of all, the man who meticulously exploited young, hapless Andrew Schillinger right into a body bag, just for the misfortune of being his father's son.
The Qu'ran said: The recompense of evil is evil like unto it; but he who pardons and does well, then his reward is with God. And this was where he had to start.
The sound of footsteps in the corridor startled Beecher, and he wheeled around unevenly, nearly knocking into Arif with his cane. Arif was dressed in neat navy sweats, probably on his way to the gym to help Kahn train in preparation for the big final match against Cyril O'Reily in the Oz boxing tournament. He shot Beecher a disgusted glare, but said nothing as he stepped around and stalked on past. Beecher sighed. It was pretty clear what Arif saw when he turned those scornful eyes his way: a lightweight dilettante, a lost cause, a faggot -- skin color was probably the least of the issue.
Then the familiar rumble of Keller's voice muttering expletives from inside the lab caught Beecher's attention again, and he knew that it was now or never.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck!"
It would have been hard not to smile -- Keller and computers were an uneasy mix under the best of circumstances, and as Beecher watched from the doorway, Keller was not surprisingly leaning forward in his chair and threatening to throttle a monitor displaying an error message.
"That's not how you do it," Beecher said, gathering his nerve and stepping inside.
Keller looked up, clearly surprised to see him. Suddenly the room seemed impossibly small, with only the two of them in it, but Beecher tried to keep himself steady as he walked over to the computer and cleared the offending dialogue box with a couple of keystrokes.
"Oh, fuck," Keller said appreciatively glancing at the restored screen before returning his attention to Beecher. His eyes narrowed slightly, as though he were trying to figure out what Beecher was doing there after having avoided him none-too-subtly from practically the moment news of Andrew Schillinger's OD hit the Em City grapevine. The awkwardness hung there for a moment before Keller spoke again. "Hey, uh, I loved Said's floor show out there."
Beecher tried to maintain his concentration and stick to the script of what he was there to do, because being in proximity to Keller had become no less confusing or painful over time. Whenever Beecher looked at him, it was like being confronted with a funhouse mirror-room of contradictory thoughts and emotions -- love, hate, desire, anger, all angling and bouncing off one another. What was the truth, what was a lie, what was real, what was complete illusion? No one had ever made Beecher feel so off-balance or unsure of himself.
He ignored Keller's attempt at smalltalk and forged ahead. "I want to talk to you."
Keller leaned back in his chair, his look now definitely wary. "All right. What?"
"Said has helped me see things a lot more clearly, Chris. And, uh... "
"Chris?" Keller cut him off, eyebrows raised. "Chris," he repeated, rubbing his chin with what looked like skeptical amusement at Beecher's introduction of his first name again after all these weeks of enforced distance.
Beecher drew a deep breath. Keller's disconcerting attitude wasn't making things any easier. But what had he expected, honestly, after the way he'd acted? Keller had tried--dozens of times -- to approach him, to apologize, only to be emphatically rebuffed. He'd tried to reach him through Sr. Pete (through being the operative word there, apparently). He didn't even seem put off by the supply room stabbing, ultimately. If anything, what seemed to really upset Keller there, was that it hadn't made them even already, which was a ledger-book outlook towards physical damage so bizarrely insensible that Beecher sometimes had a hard time remembering that he'd actually even done the shanking; its effect was so short lived.
But maybe now the rejection had finally sunk in. Maybe sending him away tonight at supper had turned out to be the last straw, because Keller was regarding him surprisingly coolly now. He was clearly interested in what Beecher had to say, but the eager, searching look of the past few weeks was nowhere in evidence.
Maybe he was beyond caring. Beecher hesitated at the thought, but then the words 'no shame' reasserted themselves in his brain and he said what he'd come there to say, to do. The first step.
"I forgive you. And I ask that you forgive me."
Keller sat there, expression unreadable for a volatile beat of silence, and then he was on his feet so quickly Beecher leaned back and away, anticipating a blow. But instead, Keller wrapped him in a powerful embrace, the lush welcome of his body giving lie to the careful reserve he'd presented.
"I love you," he whispered.
"I love you," Beecher replied quietly, and it felt strangely simple to admit, and to let go.
But then Keller leaned in closer. "Kiss me."
And Beecher's flight reflex took hold. He pulled back suddenly, struggling to get free; that wasn't what this was about, not now, not anymore.
Keller grabbed at his shirt, trying to overcome his resistance, pull him back in. He always wanted more, everything, too much. But forgiveness was not the same as trust. And that might never be possible between them again. They faced each other down for a long, charged, hard-breathing moment before Keller finally relinquished his hold.
"As-salaam Alaikum," Beecher managed shakily, and then he left to find Said.
When he awoke, Beecher was disoriented for a moment as though emerging back to consciousness from a long and startlingly vivid dream. Something about the smell of this place.... He lifted his head and looked down the length of his body, checking his limbs for casts, but no, that was... weeks ago, wasn't it? This was....
"You know, you don't get frequent flier points for hospital stays," Dr. Nathan chastised gently, walking over to check on him.
Beecher let out a groan as his memory of the brawl in the gym began to filter back in, accompanied, now that his awareness had returned, by a persistent, pulsing pain below his ribs where Schillinger had stabbed him. ("There's only one thing that's gonna make this all okay--you dead!")
Beecher's head was still fuzzy, from painkillers presumably (and Lord only knew what he would feel like without them). He remembered going down to the gym with Said to look for Schillinger, mentally rehearsing what he was going to say. The offer to use the investigators at his old law firm to try to locate Hank had seemed inspired at the time. Although now, looking back on it, Beecher wasn't sure what had possessed him to think Schillinger might actually respond positively to the idea. Desperation on his own part, most likely, needing to think it was possible to put the past to rest. Unfortunately, nobody had given Schillinger a copy of the script.
Everybody had seen this attack coming. Even Adebisi, for God's sake, had tried to warn them. So much for Said's theory of forgiveness -- or maybe it only worked with actual humans.
"Something funny?" Dr. Nathan asked, looking up from her clipboard.
Beecher rubbed his forehead. "Just my dubious sanity."
"Well, we get a lot of that around here," Dr. Nathan murmured, jotting down some more notations on his chart.
"I'm sure." Beecher smiled as she moved on. Pretty easy to see why O'Reily had such a crush.
Restless after an unknown length of time lying in bed, Beecher struggled to raise himself up as best he could without aggravating his injury. He'd just wanted to have a look around, but almost the first thing that caught his eye was the revolting sight of the blanket-covered lump in the bed diagonally across the aisle. A powerful shudder rattled through Beecher's body as he sank back down against the pillow; he never wanted to be reminded of what Vern Schillinger looked like sleeping, ever, ever again.
Except, what was Schillinger doing here? Unless...
It hadn't just been a hallucination from blood loss then, and it definitely wasn't a dream. The memories came in sharper focus now: When Schillinger lunged at him, the entire gymnasium had exploded into action. The Muslims who'd been there working out with Hamid Kahn stepped in, pairing off most of the Aryans and pulling Said away to safety. But Schillinger was still there with a shank, and Beecher hadn't been able to fend him off. He just remembered piercing hot fire, and then he was sinking to the floor, an ominous wetness soaking his shirt. And as he fell, Beecher thought he'd seen a familiar looking blur in motion out of the corner of his eye, grabbing Schillinger and jabbing a shank into his side.
All this time, Beecher had never quite been able to shake the lingering suspicion that somehow Keller's attempts to put things right between them was still part of some further plot with Schillinger, the biggest, most elaborate and humiliating set up of all. Even Keller's willing participation in "Operation Andy" hadn't managed to completely banish the doubts. But this...
Beecher drew a long, shaky breath. He would have been dead. There was no doubt Schillinger had meant to finish him off this time; the murderous rage in those watery pale eyes had been unmistakable. If Keller hadn't jumped in....
And, if that was true, than so was the rest. Beecher closed his eyes again against another flood of memory: this time of lying on the gymnasium floor feeling the helpless lightness of his life bleeding away. But then there had been someone with him, gathering him up, and the sudden rough clutch of strong hands pressing against his side, holding him together as desperate eyes and a fierce whisper ordered him, "Hang on, Toby, just hang on."
Beecher smiled quietly to himself. The next time he saw Keller, he was going to have to remind the guy to quit being so fucking pushy.
But it was real, though, wasn't it? Keller...Chris, really did love him. There was some deeply typical Beecher irony in all of this, somehow. He had thrown himself into his study of Islam consciously and deliberately, and with all seriousness and sincerity, hoping to find there some way to reconnect with himself as well as with God. And in a lot of ways, he had succeeded in that. The time he'd spent reading, and praying, and talking with Said, all of it had helped to restore a kind of clarity to his thinking. And he'd also discovered in that process, a degree of self--acceptance, and a reserve of quiet strength and resilience he'd never really known he had.
But now, here, it was Chris Keller, of all people, who made him want to take a leap of faith.
Hamid Kahn's death in the boxing ring was difficult for Said to comprehend at first. It seemed like such a freakish, unlikely thing -- especially since the tournament final had been a closed event after the residual tensions of the gymnasium brawl. Reports from several witnesses all seemed to tell the same thing, though: a single devastating head blow from Cyril O'Reily had landed in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time, and the vital, ambitious Kahn was brain dead.
Said met Kahn's widow in the hospital ward. He dearly hoped she would win her suit to get the vile machines holding Kahn's body, emptied of spirit, shut down. She seemed like a strong woman; he liked her chances. Removing his own kufi and placing it over Kahn's head, Said held her hand, made Takbirah, and recited a quiet prayer for mercy to stand in until proper funeral rites could be performed.
For a time Said had thought this man his rival, but looking now at the still form laid out in the hospital bed in front of him, Said knew that it had never really been so. They'd had some philosophical differences, yes, but Kahn was a steadfast believer in the faith who had done what he thought was best for the group. And now, with his passing, the most important thing would be a return to unity among them.
Convincing Arif, though, turned out to be a considerable challenge. Said watched Arif pace the small confines of the pod they had once shared, prayer beads bouncing against his proud chest.
"And when you come back as Imam, do you plan to allow Tobias Beecher to be among us?"
Said shook his head wearily, not wanting to get sidetracked by divisive issues this early on in their reconciliation.
"Arif, Beecher is a soul in pain, he is deserving of your compassion."
"My compassion?" Arif stopped and wheeled around. "Minister, with all due respect, Tobias Beecher represents everything that is wrong with this society. You have said as much in your own teachings!" Said started to protest, but Arif cut him off with a raised hand, breaking into a recitation voice: "'America is run on an unjust and corrupt system of 'old boy' nepotism and favors'. Is that not a quote from one of your own books?"
Said sighed. "Yes, but Beecher is not..."
"I learned from you that most of our brothers in prison were already enslaved by poverty and discrimination. But Beecher?" Arif turned his hand towards the pod door now, pointing emphatically at Beecher, who waited outside in the corridor. "He is in Oz because he was careless, selfish, and weak. Am I to feel compassion for that?"
Said watched Beecher through the plexiglass wall of the pod, studying him against the backdrop of Arif's accusation; he still seemed thin and brittle, not yet fully recovered from his first stay in the hospital, let alone the second. And leaning there unsteadily against the railing, Beecher didn't look to Said like he represented much of anything, except loss and regret.
"Did you know no weakness, no selfishness, before you found Allah? Did I?"
But Arif shook his head in visible frustration. "That's not what I'm talking about, and you know it. I don't pretend to understand your mind, but I do know that while you've been off with Beecher, real brothers have come into Oz, ones whose fathers couldn't buy them into Harvard. You think Beecher is your friend? In here, maybe, now that he's down and out. But if you had walked into Beecher's office when he was still a rich, white, lawyer? Minister, his first thought would have been that you were there to deliver his lunch."
And with that, Arif turned sharply and yanked open the door to the pod, still muttering to himself as he stormed away.
Beecher raised his eyebrows as Said came out to the corridor a moment later. "That would appear to have gone... not well."
Said smiled weakly and shrugged, looking down into the increasingly segregated common room. He decided not to bother mentioning the specifics of the conversation; there was no point in spreading harsh words. "Arif lost a good friend when Hamid Kahn died. He will not be angry forever."
"Things are all right, though? You're going back?"
Said nodded, and then Beecher blew out a breath.
"That's good, I'm glad. They need you. That kid, Bismilla..." Beecher broke off for a moment, a faraway look in his eyes, and Said wondered if he was thinking again about Andrew Schillinger -- might he have been turned around with a little guidance? Instead of...
"Arif is right, you know, about me," Beecher continued suddenly, making Said look back up in surprise. Beecher smiled wryly. "I didn't have to eavesdrop, that angry pointing finger spoke volumes. But, yeah, I'm...not ready to make a commitment to Islam. Or to anything, for that matter. I wish I were. I wish I knew what I wanted. But until I figure that out, well..."
"I see." Said nodded thoughtfully. Not that this was a completely unexpected conclusion for Beecher to reach. He was still at a point of great confusion, and not every man felt the word of Allah strongly or clearly enough at first. He himself had made several false starts.
"I do want to thank you, though, for everything you've taught me, exposed me to. You gave me the chance to heal, a place to start, and I don't even have words to express what that's meant."
"No need for thanks, Beecher. I could say much the same about you. You will be all right?"
"Yeah, um," he hesitated, but then met Said's eyes directly. "Keller's going to move back in with me."
"Beecher--" Said tried his best to keep the warning and disappointment out of his voice, but judging by the stubborn set of Beecher's jaw, he wasn't having much success.
"There's something there with Chris, and I need to find out what it is," Beecher persisted. "We talked once about journeys, remember? Well, this is part of my journey. I see that now, and I have to know. "
Said shook his head slowly. Beecher had to understand, the word was too clear, what he was thinking was wrong. "That is not what I meant by..."
"Look, I know what your beliefs are. And maybe mine need to be a little different. But... Kareem, I want you to tell me that, no matter what happens, I can still call you 'friend'."
Something in Beecher's tone made Said pause long enough for a memory he'd tried desperately to banish to rise up in his mind. Dropping his eyelids shut to guard the moment, he could almost feel the silken brush of Tricia's fragrant hair against his own rough--bearded cheek as she hugged him in that final, forbidden goodbye.
Opening his eyes again, Said looked at Beecher and nodded before his full rational senses could return and make him stop. He extended his hand.
"Always. As-salaam Alaikum, my friend. I wish you peace."