Busting Out

By Elizabeth Heider



I traced the highlighted section of freeway out with one very dirty thumbnail and tried to remember which exit had that diner with the homemade ice cream. I ate the entire bag of cheetos during two binge episodes and wiped orange hands on my slacks. I giggled intermittedly, too. Once, I laughed when I thought about the getaway car leaving to get a sprite. Another time, I snorted out loud when I thought about Ronald, the fat security guard with the bulbous eyes, five-o-clock shadow, and spearmint gum wadded in his cheek. I imagined the way he would waddle down those cinderblock halls in a few hours, consternation oozing from his pores, muttering how the hell did somebody bust out of this place. I put personal bets on the quantity and quality of curse words he would fart out before he had to face a formal reprimand.

I guess I hadn't counted the waiting into my plans, though. The thrill of escape can take you only so far and after that, you're on your own. I'd been praying to the gods of adrenaline and caffeine for four straight days and they were slow to listen tonight. My head kept slipping on my shoulders like a bobble-headed dashboard toy and before long, I was forced to rely on half-remembered John Denver lyrics to hold the eyelids aloft. I kept looking at my watch like it would urge the night along.

Finally, the waiting was over. I woke myself up with 'leaving...on a jet plane..." and a cheekfull of slobber. I heard something that sounded like cracking ice. As a pillow, the steering wheel had imprinted a sweaty groove into my forehead. I rubbed at the spot and peered anxiously into the gloom beyond the windshield. I smiled.

There he was: Jacob, my hulking goliath. He stooped gracefully in the dim light, half draped in shadows, brushing woodchips and dust from his arms and moving slowly as though time waited for him to pass. Shovel-sized hands still gripped pieces of the splintered door. No bells. No alarms. God, this place was easy! He'd shattered the gate like it was kindling and not a single soul would know until the sun burst over the horizon and shone on the jagged lines of our escape.

Jacob barreled towards me now with great loping strides and I turned the key in the ignition. If his encounter with the gate wasn't enough to rouse the security, I wasn't one to fuss about the growl of the engine. I'd keep the lights off until we'd cleared the parking lot, though.

I placed a finger to my lips. Just in case. "Very quiet," I mouthed. He nodded and opened the door.

Once in the car, Jacob smiled at me. I remembered that smile from the courtroom: Cro-Magnon brow and an enormous underbite like some deep-sea fish. His eyes glistened like polished marbles in the dim light.

I liked the smile but the smell gagged me. The reek of urine and sweat seeped from his pores and made the small space tighter. Since Jacob fit into the Civics' passenger seat in the way a rhino fits into a poodle's kennel, this was a problem.

Oh well, I thought. What did I expect? Everything in that god forsaken, court ordered hellhole smelled like sewage. The odor permeated the air and the food, the thoughts, and the souls, a Pavlovian reminder to behave like an animal. If somebody wasn't a "danger to themselves or others" when they went in, it became an acquired trait after breathing that stench.

Not Jacob, though. I had chosen him especially for his gentleness, his size, and the way that life still shone in his eyes. Somehow, his humanity had been preserved through the psychiatric evaluations, the forced treatments of haldol and adovan, the screeches of fat nurses with rough hands, and the altruism of pro bono lawyers. His eyes were still wide, not low lidded and empty. I thanked god for him when I finally saw in him what I had been waiting for, when I saw the soul in his gaze. He wouldn't have lasted another month in that place. His eyes would have dimmed and turned inward, his face grown twisted and hard.

Stagnant air would have leached into the secret places of him and carved out deep, resonating hollows. His hands would tremble when he ached with the emptiness.

But here he was: alive, and glowing from exertion. He would never have to succumb to the darkness. He would never be only a shell.

"Don't have a dime," he whispered hoarsely now. "Not even a dime." The deep chuckle was infectious and I found myself laughing for the first time in months.

On a level stretch of highway, Jacob finally relaxed. "It happened just like you said it would," he told me. I nodded and watched the yellow lines paint themselves on the asphalt in front of the car. He laughed out loud, throwing his head back.

"Man, you know that place. I mean, you know it. The timing was down to the second."

Leftover adrenaline had given way to satisfaction long ago but a wash of disappointment rose in my throat as the distance between us and the asylum grew. The journey was nearly finished.

I signed the title of the Honda over to Jacob at a rest stop. The atlas had been highlighted months ago but I pointed out the back-roads and better restaurants along the way.

"Good ice cream at the diner on exit 32," I remembered finally. I made sure to write that in as well.

"Don't stop until you reach the state line," I told him. My hands trembled as I pushed four sweaty hundreds into his fists.

He finally asked the question. "How long did they keep you in there?"

I shrugged and shoved my fingers into the empty of my pockets. "Too long," I said.

I watched the red glow of the taillights become smaller and finally vanish over a rise in the snaking road.

~ * ~

Native Shore Fiction

Word Smitten's
Annual
TenTen Award
for Fiction
Title: Busting Out - 2003 Honorable Mention
Short Story

 

The journey was nearly finished. Fiction by Elizabeth Heider. Title: BUSTING OUT.

 

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