Miguel hangs limply from the noose tied by own hands, feet dangling a mere inches from the dingy grey floor in his tiny cell.
Ray kneels bent in front of a single lighted candle, knees brushing across the dingy grey floor of his office.
For immortal souls. Two of them, unrequited, and unfulfilled.
* * *
That's right, sublimate the shit.
Niggling twitches in the deepest recesses of his brain, uninvited and completely unwelcome.
Pushing them away before they ever even had time to develop into full blown thoughts, emotions, or, /dear sweet God forbid/ actions. He'd refuse to ever go back and ponder them any more. Don't think it, don't do it. He didn't battle it, he didn't outright ignore it.
Before it ever got to that point, to ever take root and fester or grow, other blessed portions of his thoughts mercifully took over and smoothed the nether-regions back into complacency. Unrecognized, unexplored, and most certainly unrequited and unfulfilled.
And that's what left him unprepared.
* * *
The normally stuffy room was super-charged. Thick with electricity and tension; sorrow, remorse and helplessness banging off the walls, ricocheting around him, piercing his very mind, breaking his heart, jangling his immortal soul. Fear permeating every inch unclaimed by substance. Strong and threatening to break down even those physical barricades and choke any remnant of hope or grace left there. All too intimate, all too human scents of sweat and blood over it all, cloying the air, smearing the light that dared shine in with bleak surrender.
His every movement was like a caged animal, frantic pacing, knowing the pleas were in vain. Gone too far, he had no option to turn back now. And in that time of utter desperation, hopeless despair, Miguel had turned to Ray.
* * *
Ray stayed away from him locked in that cell in solitary for a while. Probably a combination of self-protection, denial, and feelings of utter futility all congealed to keep him at bay. That, and the pain of seeing. He knew he wasn't doing well, that he was accepting his fate exactly as he nervously burbled he would in his office that day - slowly descending into a spiraling abyss of madness and depression. But knowing was one thing, seeing another. Wracked with guilt over his own feelings that he'd become increasingly hyper-aware of, he reasoned it was best to stay away. He'd never been of help before really. What good had he done? He'd made everything more painful, and hadn't been able to save him from his worst nightmares.
And then, worse, he had to go home to his own dreams every evening. Niggling thoughts run rampant, lusty mortal thoughts trampled by daylight took hold in the middle of the night, haunting and heating him, forcing him into half-conscious states of itchy arousal at things he shouldn't even be thinking, let alone enjoying.
So he'd flop over restlessly, tossing on rumpled sheets in his clean empty bed with God as his only company. His ever protective, completely omniscient eyes seeing it all as Ray would groan with frustration, clutching at the sheets and burying his face in the pillow to try and make it stop.
Never denied, but never used proclivities came thumping through his veins, raging to the surface. He never buried those, but because of his calling, he never needed them either, it was always simply moot.
And being there, in Oz, with his open-minded views, maybe that pushed them even further. Instead of condemning and being sick over how he saw the inmates occasionally cling to one another, he simply accepted it. His concerns were for the violence and the hate, he had no trouble seeing the other.
So he'd toss on his sheets, then finally he'd give up and go to his small bathroom, refusing to turn on the lights, trying to cloak himself away from prying eyes, even though he knew He could see it all anyhow.
He'd see him in the dark, turning under the stream of water to try and distract himself, but always end up failing. And He'd see him reach down and grasp hold of himself, simply holding, trying to squeeze some of the nagging pressure into submission. But worst of all, when that would fail and he'd give in and allow himself to begin to sway into his own fist, creating that ohsosweet friction upon himself, He'd see straight into his mind and what he was thinking of then. /Thick lashed dark eyes and a square jaw around slightly crooked teeth. Thin lips sheened with a slick coating of saliva and a sinewy neck. Broad shoulders and ink stained arms./ And worst of all, He'd hear his thoughts inside his head, eternal struggle, all played out, over and again, of what should be and what just shouldn't. /And ohgod, help him now, he's suffering so much and I'm doing this.../ And He'd hear him cry out with both release and sorrow, frustration relieved and compounded all at once, never really hitting any sort of real resolution.
And all that condemnation he never had for anyone else, he now has for himself
But he's not lost and broken, he still clings and keeps his faith strong. Because it's not about giving up or giving in for Ray. Just like he tries to teach others, he has to practice it himself. It's about moving on and growing up. Not drowning out the love and strangling it to death, but living with it. Because having too much is better than not enough.
* * *
Ray comes again today, bringing a sandwich to ease his hungry belly and feed his body, but he knows there's nothing left he can do to ease the suffering he's keeping locked up everywhere else.
So Miguel pants and festers the days away, relying on conversations with his dead grandfather to keep him company, trapped in a corner and finally knowing that he placed himself there. And, possibly now, knowing why.
He loved too much, too little, at the wrong times, the wrong things instead of the right people. And this is what he got in return.
Left now with the crushing realization that he'll never have it. He's all he's got, and he's drifting away now too. His limits reached their zenith a while back, and he's lost any desire to try and push them higher.
The tiny breaks with Ray or Sister Peter Marie, they make it bearable, if only for that time. But the thought of them ending, and he knows they will, it nearly kills him. Suffocating fear cascades over him at those glimpses of the imminent future that the long-buried allow him to see. One word saying it all. Alone.
And for Ray, it's restless helplessness and bleeding love in anguish for another soul that he holds all too close to his own heart.
And this time, for Miguel, the thought of this short relief ending is just too much. The fissures widened even more, allowing all his grace to be admitted, but with that, draining out the last bit of strength to hold on and keep walking and facing daily that it's all been in vain.
And so, he can't go on anymore. Maybe try somewhere else, or just at least blank this all out once and for all. The crushing weights of all the sorrow he carries - all in the name of love - are hunching his shoulders, calling him on. His son, his grandfather, they promise to give him what he needs there, if only he'll let go of here. So he knows it's time to stop shouldering the burdens, it's time for him to shrug.
But there's still right here, and right now he's not alone, and not quite ready to say goodbye. Final and inviting as it is, there's still those last whispers of hope, and immeasurable fear of leaving what he's always known.
Ray stands to leave, to minister to the others for the day, and wild-eyed and explosive, Miguel begs him to stay.
* * *
Ray's completely lacking that air of condemnation that other priests wield so effortlessly. His career's been built on principle and faith, not politics and pecking orders. Sent here in retribution, as punishment for the almighty transgression of following his faith instead of blindly adhering to the doctrines of his mentor or the church, his penance is long and hard.
But it's not wracked with guilt for him, in his eyes he's been true. He always knew and believed, none of what's asked so much a burden as minor sacrifices. And to him, in the grand scheme of things, the Greater love was always worth the price of never knowing and always forsaking the carnal.
He's had his tests. But not that kind. He endured the riots and violence, thrown to the wolves for beatings instead of being protected for his troubles. It shook his core and rattled his faith. Not because it happened, but because of who let it happen.
He built trust. And in one split second of terror, that trust shattered. What made it worse was that he knew he wasn't wrong from the beginning, he was right.
It's in there in him. Alvarez. Ray could see it from the start. The cocky kid tried to brush him off and feign indifference. Not for Miguel initially, but for God's love of an innocent unborn baby he pushed him anyhow. Every button he could find, Ray pushed. Didn't take much after all though.
Thick layers of ego and macho bullshit cracked away, falling by the wayside to reveal what Ray knows is still in everyone even if we can't find it so easily. And he made him care. And it broke his heart. But he thanked Ray for it anyhow, and that's when Ray knew it was worth it.
* * *
He knew he was high strung, high maintenance from the start. That married to his ability to carry guilt, and his amazing ability to do things that require remorse are a textbook formula for damage to be done.
Shit, he'd already carved himself up once and was nearly complacent with it afterward. And he'd still keep opening himself up. Losses he thought sure would crush him, his own son dying, watching his grandpa deteriorate every day and die slow and sad, but he kept going.
* * *
And Ray keeps going too. Ray's always had more than enough. Not the false kind, but real. For himself, for his God, and for all His children. But when that bridge he thought he built was burned as surely as everything else in Em City, it shook him bad.
Bitter and angry, confused as to how someone who knew better now could turn his back on him like that, he questioned his own love and strength.
In time, that made it stronger. Cause he has enough courage, muscle, and caring to forgive, and cause he understands. He understands that Miguel still doesn't fully understand. So instead of hating him, he ached for him. And then he put it all aside and moved on. 'Til that day.
That's why Alvarez did it again. Insecure and way low down, he walked into it headlong. Twisted reasoning and street mentality codes formed in a lifetime pushed even more and he thought he had no choice.
So he did it.
He didn't want to, but he cut another man's eyes right out of his head.
And then he turned to Ray.
Deep in the throes of wild-eyed, mouth-frothing panic, he jabbered on about his fate and fuck ups. Every option instantly ripped away, accutely aware of his future, and possibly for the first time realizing the true horror of it, probably still not understanding why it rattled him to the core, he fell against a wall, slumped in defeat.
A sudden quiet fell then, and Ray looked over at him, nervously scratching away with bloody hands at his short hair as the vein in his forehead bulged with pressure, manifesting the raging going on inside.
The line was blurred a long time before that, shepherd and flock, priest and inmate. It was more personal before. But right then, it got obliterated.
Listening to his cracking voice gripped with fear as the only sound above the eerie hush, trembling in a taut whisper and realizing his own limitations to endure the vast crushing emptiness, Ray felt it then for the first time. All the niggling little thoughts that had been pushed on back and ignored suddenly frothed together and culminated as he looked at him with more than pity.
Even at that second, he didn't realize what it was exactly. But his chest suddenly constricted and reverberated with a smashing internal force. He looked down at Miguel, unable to move to help him, unable to be of any real assistance even if he could, and he knew what the feeling was.
He'd felt sorrow and mourned for others before, but it was never quite so stunning and devastating as this time. Because this time, it was even more personal. He'd known he'd grown attached, fond even. Didn't know exactly why, but now he did, and the reasons didn't matter. The cause is debatable, the effect is not.
He loves him.
And seeing him so completely destroyed was breaking his heart. Then as all those thoughts washed over him and he sat silently watching and listening, Miguel broke that trance and rose again, circling around not with desperate energy, but with a determined resolve. And as he heard the words pour out of his mouth, he felt the whole world blackening around him, his failure to help, his inability to get through, and most of all, a devastating loss.
"Say a prayer for me Father," he requested and lifted the blade against his own throat.
And then the room exploded again.
* * *
It's one of those miraculous moments in life. The kind where we can't really explain it, so we decide to not even talk about it most of the time. And when we do, we just say things like, "it was just a feeling," or "strange shit, you know?"
Cause we don't really know what causes them, and what's really so odd is that they're so completely rare. Maybe they wouldn't be if we didn't spend so much time not only deliberately hiding from others, but also from ourselves. But whatever keeps it from usually happening all falls away for Ray and Miguel now.
Locked in that tiny cell with musty air and cloying guilt, too many ghosts hovering all around, and the two of them, Ray standing in the doorway, Miguel on his bunk. Perhaps a perfect exchange of words, or maybe a quieting lack of them helped push it here. The exact right look exchanged between them, that could explain it. The split fissures in Miguel's mind and Ray's bleeding heart, wordlessly exchanging more information than most can fathom.
A synergistic combination of everything coming together at once, denied and ignored windows opening between them to allow the other entrance. Convoluted images break, and like a sudden dawning with touches of grey, at this second, they know the other.
It passes between them unspoken, and forced along with it is the revelation of not only incredible enlightenment, but also a heavy burden.
So Miguel stands up and closes the physical distance between them. Placing his arms around the other man to comfort him, he says two words, "Thank you."
* * *
Too much, not enough, too good, too bad, over and over. What he should be, couldn't be, wouldn't ever be. What he could be thinking, refused to be thinking, had to be thinking.
So Ray broke and went to see him finally.
And it was worse than he thought.
Cloistered and ragged, Miguel was spiraling more rapidly than he had imagined. Eyes gleaming dark, still unable to hide the murky despair welling up inside. Losing touch with now, grasping at tenuous strings to the outside while desperately making unseen and unbidden alliances right in that tiny grey room.
Weak and starving, still unable to tell, to know what could be done to help himself. All he did, every thing, turned back upon him, mocking him and leaving him stripped of what he tried to gain. What it all was for, and where it's left him. Upside down and at the opposite end of where he always thought he needed to be.
And that's too much to bear. Tiny fissures in his mind open and close. Gateways between here and the past, and the undeniable future.
The last vestiges of bravado whittled away, stolen with it pride and shame all at once. No longer an ego, but only a man. A man left permanently to himself now, and that's not company he wants to keep. Alone and solemn, nothing but his own past haunting him, and no hope for the one thing he needed all his life -love.
But ultimately, sadly, lacking the self-awareness to know that's what he's after. Thinking it's something simpler, or more difficult. Every pattern in life cultivated in a misguided attempt to fill the howling spaces that could have been so easily filled.
Craving acceptance and respect, building superficial walls of ego and pride as placebos for the real deal. And that's why none of it was ever enough.
* * *
"You're welcome," Ray answers.
And then the windows close, and once again they're standing side by side, but yet ultimately alone.
Uneasily, Ray clears his throat, pats Miguel on the back and starts to back away again.
But now he knows, and he knows how to make him stay. Just a little longer. Just...don't...leave.
So he refuses to let go, ink-etched arms clinging to the mortal world through Ray, asking one more chance, for him to give just a little more.
It's damage either way for Ray, because he can't hang on. And then a whisper, soft and oh so low, voice ragged with naked need falls warm into his ear. "Father, don't go."
And his eyes drift close, his head nods forward, heavy with the burden, heavier yet with longing. His hand moves up the back of Miguel's neck, drawing him closer, and down into his shoulder. Strong fingers brush through the soft thick hair, fine strands of silk against his tender palm and the sensations roll all through him as he strokes so gently and soothing. Pounding heart, throbbing through his ears, and whispers in his veins carry tingles of fulfillment that rise to the top reaches of his fine skin. Exhaling slowly, each ounce of breath that leaves taking with it another piece of resistance.
So Ray clings to the last sinews of control he has, knowing what he has to do. Pulling from his depths, not with thoughts of God, but of the well being of his love, he draws away ever so slightly and measures another breath and opens his eyes. "Miguel..."
"Shhhhhhhh," is all he hears. Guttural peace and calm, dropped again secretly in his ear, urging him quiet, pleading acceptance. Because Miguel knows, and he cares, and he's clinging on to push it all back and he can't let it go, not quite yet. He's been ready for a long time, but just a little longer, one last chance before it all evaporates again. One last try to find something, anything to cling to before he has to let go. So he turns his head slowly, meeting Ray's gaze, momentarily cause he knows he's going to turn and walk out that door. And that's what he can't face, not quite yet. "Please don't leave me, please," he begs.
Knowing how to make him stay, wanting, needing, craving at least one person to care, he softly lowers his lids, obscuring his dark eyes and all they reveal and tilts his head to take a taste of life.
Unprepared to evade, uncertain anymore of what's right, Ray's mind swims in the seconds before as he knows it's going to happen. He swallows hard, and then lets go.
Warm and soft, their lips meet gently. With the first hint of contact, Ray loses himself. Head swimming and heart pounding, feeling what he never had before, it fills him up. And for the second time in his life, he feels that rapid-fire explosion deep within his chest. Coursing outward, making his limbs weak, displacing everything else. Open mouthed and begging for more, an echoing frisson runs up his spine, numbs the outside world, and the struggle ends.
Miguel feels it himself, the hesitancy gone, and in that second, he's not alone. He knows that man is there, with him, entwined with him and connected, giving him what he thinks he needs. Sighing, he hesitates, momentarily frozen with something he thought he'd never have again, and wasn't sure he ever did. It's what he chased his whole life, never really knowing that was what he was after. The sudden clarity too much to release, he moves again, terrified of letting it end.
His mouth moves again, opening wider and pulling him in more, tongue daring to slide out and seek even more solace.
And that's when Ray tastes him fully. He feels what's on lips, in his breath. Desperation.
That's something even a novice can sense. It's not love and it's not hope, it's a plea and cry. And Ray snaps back to full attention with the sudden realization of it and what it means if he continues to accept this.
Squirming in the pit of his stomach, because he knows it, what it would mean, what he almost did, what he's doing. Blurred lines and burning desire. Comfort and counsel offered in his arms, but instead of giving, they're receiving. Another line blurred, stepped over and hopelessly obliterated, a line of trust, a line of grace. His body, his soul the one that should have been offered up, but instead Miguel gave his in a last ditch solemn exchange. One last glimpse of feeling, of caring, of feeling cared for.
Anything but abandonment now, and it hardly feels like a sacrifice for Miguel. Because he doesn't care whose arms they are, or whose breath it is, as long it's someone there who won't hurt him. Someone, something, anything left to cling to in life before the tunnel closes forever. A lifetime's longing, a few moments to ease the pain. Anything, anything, just, don't leave.
The agonizing sweetness of tasting what he knew he'd never have, couldn't have, shouldn't try for. And wanting anyhow. Wanting to offer that relief, to be that strength and comfort, so not letting go, being strong enough to push his own rolling desires aside, because this man isn't in his right mind.
And so, gently, Ray pulls back.
Not because he doesn't fully grasp his feelings, but because he finally realizes just how hauntingly deeply he does.
Softly, with surety and serene, looking into wild questioning eyes, he assures, "Miguel, I'm not going to leave you."
And Miguel nods, not throwing a full blown panic attack. Instead, very still and quiet, he backs away. Looking down, sighing lightly, he knows the priest is sincere.
But he also knows he's wrong.
So Ray walks out the door, thinking, believing, trusting he did the right thing, true love unrequited. And Miguel sits back down on his bunk, a lifetime's worth of unknown hopes unfulfilled.
Continued in Reckoning