He came out of the cage just before dawn and moved quickly down the corridor lined with dozens still asleep, their deep, gouging breaths and heavy snores pushing him on his way. He was dressed in state-issued jeans and a t-shirt under a thin, denim jacket. He wore running shoes and the men shadowed him as if he was a child, one stationed on either side of him, so close their arms brushed against his as they walked past all the others, down the steps and through three separate rooms, out the metal doors and into the morning chill.
It hadn’t occurred to Ernie that the sky on the outside of the wall could look so different from the one that spooned out over his cell window. This was the kind of sky that went on forever, reaching in all directions, billowing black and gray cotton, pinhole stars pushing through where they could. He’d had weeks to consider what a move like this could mean for a guy like him, a guy who had done what he’d done. But Christ almighty, the breaking day was surely something to behold from the outside. Before the men ducked him into the back seat, he took in one more breath of the brand new air.
The men sank into their seats and slammed their doors, almost in unison. In the fading dome light, Ernie listened to the sound of keys tumbling, and tapping against the ignition. The one in the passenger seat had turned to his left shoulder. The silhouette was something out of a comic book, a Dick Tracy cutout, all angles and hard edges.
“The fact that you’re going from maximum to medium doesn’t mean a damned thing,” he said. It was a voice pushed down, forced to a place unnatural for its speaker. Ernie knew a thing or two about that. “Don’t think you’ll be sitting back there with your arm out the window, shooting the shit with us up here. This ain’t no Burt Reynolds movie. You keep your mouth shut and do what we tell you, when we tell you.”
The words bounced around the inside of the car, and knocked him upside the head and rang his ears.
“You hear me?” The profile ticced. “This transfer today means you’re on the downhill side of your sentence. So don’t fuck it up by doing something stupid.”
He had imagined he would take notice and find some satisfaction in watching the valley disappear in his wake, but by the time they came out of Walla Walla he was already beginning to drift. It was an old sedan with real good shocks, and it cruised over the roadway as if it were floating him downriver. The heat was set on high. He settled himself against the door and touched his hair to the cool window and closed his eyes, listening to the humming on the pavement like it was a hundred thousand mosquitoes. They hovered just outside the screen like they always did, sometimes lighting, usually knocking against the mesh, and then he felt the warmth of his young son at his side as they laughed over dumb ghost stories, and named all the fish they’d caught that day.
Ernie had been a good father and a decent husband most of the time, but he was also a man who liked to drive into the mountains at night by himself, in secret, when the rest of the house was sound asleep. He would drive until he found the perfect spot, and then he’d park and carry his folding chair close to the creek, and listen to the distant yodel of coyotes as they cried. And sometimes they sounded so close the noise would raise the hairs on his neck and cause his skin shrink to his bones. And then just as daylight began to edge behind the mountain, he would make the long drive home, where he shut off the engine at the corner and coasted into the driveway, and slipped inside noiselessly to wait for his son to wake up for school.
In the front seat the men talked to each other in tones too low for him to piece together. Here and there a streetlight gave a momentary fade in and out, and when he opened his eyes, the whitewash of sagebrush or a lone, green exit sign appeared. Once, just as he dipped into sleep, the red bloom of fireworks burst into his mind, smashing neon against the back of his skull. A flash of heat spread over his chest and his foot kicked at the seat in front of him. He pressed his teeth together and cleared his head of the smoke, and forced himself to follow the drone of the road still beneath him.
His eyes jerked open, and his forehead knocked against the window. The one with the freckled neck and the red hair snapped the dome light and stared at him through the visor mirror, blue eyes shot and narrowed.
“Shut the fuck up.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You calling me a liar?” The man had turned now and was looking over his shoulder, his arm stretched along the seat ridge. A flat, gold wedding band corseted his finger.
Ernie swept his palms over his eyes and sat up straight, a chastised little boy again, a bottom dweller, a peon. The road ahead came at him through the headrests, and the pavement hummed beneath them, crawling through his boots, along his legs and into teeth ground together like the legs of a cricket. The fat driver fidgeted and checked the mirrors and gauges, his bald head shining from the approaching headlights, the flesh spilling over his collar as he bobbed right and left. It was he who had gripped Ernie’s arm, pinched the flesh over his elbow as soon as they moved out of the deep acoustics of the final processing room. It was the fat driver who hollered through the open window to the gatehouse guard, as if they were the best of friends. It had been a short exchange between the two men, but Ernie was smart enough to know that the whole thing was a ricochet conversation meant for his ears, the convict on his way to his new home.
“Two and a half hours to the summit,” the fat driver had said. The whole east cellblock could likely have heard him.
The guard asked then, “With how many stops?”
“No stops,” the driver said. “Be no stops on this run.”
A few more miles down the road and the redhead seemed to have forgotten Ernie already. The man gazed out through his own window, the dim light carving a clenched jaw and thick brow, driven to the bridge of his nose. They passed under a streetlight and the face held like a sculpture, chiseled and cold. Through the mirrors, the white ball of an October sun was just beginning to emerge.
In the dashboard lights the clock glowed emerald green, and Ernie’s thoughts fell to Patrick again. He could be at school already. He would be in the eleventh grade now, he thought. A year from graduation. And Bobbie, she would be there too, of course, in and out of her nurse’s office, the hovering mother hen that his actions—the hair trigger temper, his great failure as a husband and father, as a man—had forced her to become. But he would be two hundred miles closer now, and this was a good thing for all of them. He was a better man, better than he had been before and besides, there was so much unfinished business. Bobbie and Patrick could make the trip to see him once in awhile, now that he would be in Monroe, hardly a mountain to separate them. His letter to Bobbie had gone out weeks earlier—four pages of apologies and promises. She hadn’t answered yet.
The vista shifted quickly from wheat fields to a wide spread of stunted trees, perfect geometrical grids of them that stretched on forever, naked branches reaching up, shocked, as if crying out to be released from the roots that anchored them into the cold earth.
They came through the orchards as the sun finally shone white over the rugged scablands. The driver suddenly wiped a thick hand over his head.
“I’m gonna get off here,” he said. “Get something for my stomach.”
“What are you, sick?” his partner asked. He pressed against the door and looked over at him as if he could be contagious.
“No I ain’t sick. Goddamned acid reflux.”
He steered them from the highway onto a breakaway road, taking them some distance along a crusted route that rose and dipped through sage-covered mounds. About four miles out they came upon a cinderblock gas station dropped smack in the middle of nothingness. They stopped alongside the building and flung open the doors, his included.
“Half a cigarette and a stop in the toilet if you need it,” the redhead said. “But make it quick.”
The man walked behind Ernie, nearly on his ass, but Ernie kept his pace slow lest the guy think he was making a break for it, as if he would try something like that, out there in the center of Mars like they were. He could outrun the driver, but the redhead looked like he could move. And anyway, either one might have a gun. Ernie wasn’t much of a runner, not anymore, even though he had the right shoes for it. Running was for people with plans, and destinations. He was on the downhill side of his sentence, where the hell could a guy like him land out in the middle of this hellhole?
The john was no bigger than his cell, and it was coated in a mossy green paint and bordered with a train of cloudy glass blocks along the ceiling. The redhead stood at the sink and took a comb from his back pocket, then crouched under the static of the fluorescent bulb as he leaned into the mirror. Ernie glanced briefly at his own image as it passed against the wall. His shoulders slacked under the loose-fitting shirt. His beard was long overdue for a trim. It looked like a costume hooked over his ears, cupping a face that had been scooped into shadows and feathered by the harsh light. He’d take care of it all before Bobbie came with Patrick.
“Five minutes,” the man said without looking up.
Ernie crowded into the stall, latched the door behind him and sat with his elbows on his knees as he began fill the stall with the stench of Walla Walla. He bunched his jeans in his hands and considered the vast diorama that surrounded him. These were people with pens and knives and too much disposable time, men who could leave their marks and then hit the road, to drive or hitchhike to Spokane or Reno, or wherever the hell they wanted to end up. There were cartoon faces with crackled golf ball eyes and horsey teeth, and crude drawings of tits and cocks, disembodied torpedo-like things, each of them in violent eruption. There were phone numbers with the names of girls who wanted it and queers who needed it, and a few rhyming poems. There was even a haiku, not half bad:
I just saw Elvis
Filling up with premium
He liked my Pacer
It was the first time in years that he had sat on the john without another man in plain view, thumbing through a magazine or carrying on a conversation with him between muscle flexes and the spin of the toilet paper roll. He wanted to make the moment last, as if the mere act of shitting in privacy was a prize earned in annual celebration. The walls were near his elbows and his thighs, but the square above the stall went straight to the sky, a perimeter of white trembling with the turn of the fan. This place wasn’t the worst he’d been in, not by a long shot. There were johns and then there were latrines, jungle latrines that had better ventilation and the added task of checking for spiders or tripwires. He was thinking of light coming through the boards, and of the dank heat and the sounds of helicopter blades cutting the sky, and then he pulled the image of Patrick into his mind again, as he always did when his mind started to slide like that. Patrick was as he was when Ernie last saw him, pimpled forehead and too skinny for his height, sitting with Bobbie on the other side of the glass, his eyes fixed on his own chewed fingernails. It wasn’t right that a father should depend on his son so much, but goddamn it. He needed that referee in his head. To quell the noise and separate what really mattered from what had been over and done with a long time ago. The outside door suddenly banged open and the morning poured in, brilliant and crisp with the light lacing of sage.
“Get that bastard out of there,” he heard the fat driver say. “We gotta hit the road.”
Ernie walked past the clock in the station window and caught that it was half past nine. Normal people were at work now, at their desks answering phones or filling out papers. It would be another hour and a half until he reached the midpoint, where the guys from Monroe would be waiting to take him the rest of the way to the reformatory. His legs crawled with a kind of electricity, like the crackling veins that ran over the owl-like cartoon eyes staring at him from the stall walls. From the station, the ragged terrain stretched low and wide in all directions, as far as the eye could see.
The men directed him into the backseat and shut the door behind him, then held an abbreviated conference from opposite sides of the car. They talked back and forth over the hood, the driver’s round face flush as he leaned elbows on the fender and worked his mouth like a sock puppet. The redhead nodded and closed his eyes then, after a couple false starts, held his hands up in surrender. After a few more words, they climbed in and slammed the doors in unison.
The driver threw a pill back into his throat and pulled out from the lot, hooking hard to the left onto the road as he held a Styrofoam cup of coffee like a torch. Then the redhead said, “Buckle up, cowboy,” and Ernie drew the seatbelt from beneath his leg, and cinched it tightly over his lap.
He sank into his shoes and watched the passing wires as they flatlined through the view of rolling scablands, trailed over the mounds of tawny grass and chunk rocks that tumbled to a distant, marbled sky. He yawned, and the glass bloomed to a silver fog. This is where it is, he thought to himself. A never-ending reach of openness. A guy could get past that first snag of barbed wire and just walk on forever, never meet another living soul.
They had dipped over the second ridge when the driver suddenly squeezed out a cry, mottled and phlegmy, as though it were being forced from deep within the gut. His thick body lunged to the right, cutting the car from the highway to the graveled shoulder. A spray of rocks hurled against the undercarriage as he grunted and growled, pulling at his shirt with one hand, while the redhead lunged at the wheel and yelled for him to hit the goddamned brakes. Tires plowed the gravel, and the fat driver spit and bobbed his head like it was on a coiled spring. A thin train of barbed wire raked over side window. They were a good distance from the gas station now, and the highway was nowhere.
Ernie took hold of the seat edge. His damp hands slid freely over the fabric. For an instant the car rediscovered the pavement, skipping and seeming to take hold. The craggy plain stretched gloriously from the rear window, barren fields spotted with brambles and boulders, just like the old westerns he once stared up at from the front row seats. He took hold of the armrest and tightened his stomach against the straining seatbelt. Over the fence, the dappled dips and swells rolled into distance as the car began to nose back from the highway to the shoulder. His mind went again to his boy Patrick and the last things he’d said to him, the details of which he could not bring to the surface. And then he felt his legs lift from the seat, and the ground falling beneath them. Fence posts slammed against metal and barbed wire clawed the glass. He pressed his chin to his chest, closed his eyes and succumbed to the roll.
The crash itself was finished in the time it took him to lose a single breath. One moment his body was being jerked in all directions and the next he was hanging like a fish, still hooked tightly to the belt. He looked up into a swirl of dust and grit. A hard pang stabbed his side, and his legs felt as if they were just coming out of a coma. From the front seat, one of the men mumbled in low tones; Ernie could see through the turning cloud the tangle of arms and legs, bare skin feathered with crimson. The right rear door looked straight up into the sky. He undid his buckle and leaned to the front headrest to see the redhead crumpled over the driver, thick neck glaring through settling dirt. His body shifted and his arm moved from his side, ever slightly.
“Oh Jesus!” He wailed like a stung child. “Jesus oh Jesus!”
Ernie reached forward and put his hand on the guy’s side.
“Don’t you fucking go anywhere,” he said to Ernie.
Red dust churned the interior, the taste of iron and grass settling in Ernie’s mouth. His movements seemed to come without thought, his belly over the seat back, hands snatching wallets from pockets, swatting the redhead’s feeble hand away. A .45 pistol sat in the glove compartment, the safety still engaged.
“Don’t you do it,” the passenger said, a voice flooded, washed in spit or blood, Ernie made no effort to check which. He took the gun and sat back on his haunches, and pulled the cash from the billfolds.
“I never hurt you,” he said, tossing the wallets back to the front. He tucked the pistol into his waistband. “No matter what, you make sure they know I never hurt either one of you.”
Wire spilled in through the broken window and he separated the strands with care and intention, as if it might explode in his hands. He slid through the shattered window, the scratch of glass against his jeans and the metal teeth of the barbs biting at his skin. And when he hit the ground he scurried the slope to the road that was ice against his palms, and a breeze crept its fingers down the front of his shirt.
It was wide open; in all directions there was nothing but sage and boulders and sky. In the distance behind him, where the blue and red chevron glowed over little cinderblock station, a big rig was just pulling out from the pumps. It swung a wide left and took to the road, stuttering into gear as it climbed the hill toward them.
The shouting from the car faded as he ran on, every step over rocks and the sandy soil a drumbeat into the bottoms of his sneakers. There came a flash vision of An Khe again, of endless rice fields, and the crying of insects, and his throat burned as he fought to pull air into his lungs. He thought of the place west of the mountains, the weeping green cedars and clouds of moss, of the whisper of Patrick’s voice at the other end of the phone and the feel of Bobbie’s hair as he wound it loosely through his fingers.
Taking the pistol from his hip, he held it, feeling the smooth steel against his palm. He was no stranger to guns but it had been a long time, and he sure didn’t remember the weight being so noticeable. He reached back as far as he could, as far as Walla Walla maybe, and launched it through the air. It sailed in a grand arc, almost disappearing against the ashen sky before finally dropping behind a swale of rock. Behind him, the noise of a big rig swelled as it came closer and he picked up his pace, stumbling over the raw terrain as he trained his eyes on the tiny farmhouses freckling the far horizon.
Warren Read is an assistant principal on Bainbridge Island, WA, and is the author of the 2008 memoir, “The Lyncher in Me” (Borealis Books). His fiction has been published inHot Metal Bridge, Mud Season Review and Henhouse (Write Bloody Publishing, and he has had two short plays directed and produced by Tony winner Dinah Manoff. In 2015 he received his MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University; he is currently shopping the novel from which this story is excerpted.