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Fear in a Handful of Dust
By Brian Garfield
A MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1978 John Ives
All rights reserved.
When the lights go off Calvin Duggai lies still and gapes straight up into the darkness while he absorbs the night through his ears.
He hears the slap of the bolt and the male nurse's footsteps pocking away down the corridor; he hears the squeak of springs, the rustle of bedclothes along the ward. He hears Joley's fear-of-darkness whimpering and someone's catarrhal snort arid the empty bitter cough of an inmate's laughter.
Duggai's stomach churns. A tight ache spans his skull. Air conditioning pushes the rancid air around but does not leach it of the sick smells of fear-sweat and incontinence and incipient nausea.
Hate spins through him—just now it is unfocused, directionless. Its only restraint is purpose: he must will chaos away. He pushes the pain far back out of his awareness because everything needs to be precise now and he has no leeway for the carelessness that rage could cause.
He reviews the steps, isolating each move in his mind, visualizing, seeking weaknesses—here a point of risk, there a need for swiftness and silence. The rain came suddenly this evening: until then he wasn't quite ready; the pumping of blood through his temples has been very fast during the past few hours and now he must double his caution because the impatience of weariness may betray him otherwise. If anything comes awry then the entire scheme will collapse because they won't merely put him back in here, they'll take him back to the other place with its armed male nurses and its concrete walls from which there is no escape.
When he judges them to be all asleep Duggai lifts his legs off the bed and sits up until his bare feet touch the cold floor. The air conditioning rumbles and he listens beyond it, judging the sounds of men's breathing, turning his head slowly to catch every angle against the flats of his eardrums. There must be no alarm.
He puts his weight on his feet and strips the blanket slowly off the bed. He folds it because he can't have a loose edge drag against someone's foot in the dark. He pads down the length of the ward and carries the blanket into the bathroom, closes the door tight, shutting himself in, dropping the folded blanket to one side.
The silence is abrupt. In the absence of the numerous sounds of human life he now hears the drift of rain upon the roof overhead.
He moves confidently without needing light; long ago his feet memorized the dimensions. The faint hint of illumination defines the high vent window—heavier vertical stripes are the steel bars set into the opening. Even without its bars it would be too small for Duggai to wriggle through.
He crouches. Under the third sink his hands move with quick familiarity: a deft spanning and twisting of the wide fastenings until the elbow of drainpipe comes free. He upends it into his palm and the kitchen knife drops into his hand, a reassuring weight. He lays the pipe elbow aside on the floor with silent care; to replace it would take time and he has examined each step carefully from all directions and determined that there is no need to replace the pipe because they will know about the breakout anyway. It has taken him years in the other place and months in this one to work out the plan and fix each detail in his mind; this is the night he has aimed for and he moves swiftly without waste.
Four paces take him to the outside wall. With the blade he unscrews the four screws that hold the plywood panel over the cavity in the wall (access to the incoming hot and cold water pipes). It has taken several months' nightly work with fingers and the table knife to cut through the outside paneling and scrape through the stucco. Eight nights ago the knife went through free to the outside of the building and he knew he'd cut his way close enough. Since then it has been a matter of waiting: he has waited for a night black with rain.
He hikes himself up to the window, hanging on the ledge by his fingers, peering out. The rain is opaque. In his imagination he can see the lawn, the high fence, the trees beyond the fence. To the left he can see rain slanting into yellow light from a window farther along the building but that is a safe distance away.
On the floor he lies back and kicks the wall out.
The months of digging have weakened it. The three-foot segment of stucco gives way neatly to his barefoot kick.
He hears it break apart when it strikes the lawn fourteen feet below. A damp soft thudding of pieces. He lies absolutely still now, ears keening the night. The fresh smell of rain seeps in through the hole, dispelling the bathrooms disinfectant air. Duggai feels around the hole with his fingers, finds a jutting edge of stucco and breaks it off, sets it aside and puts the knife in his teeth and wraps the blanket around his shoulders; and goes out feet first.
He wriggles out belly-down and blind, his back to the night. Raindrops soak the pajamas to his legs. The cold rain makes him wince. He grips a pipe and lowers his body until he hangs full length against the outside wall, toes touching the rough surface. Without hurry he gathers himself. When he is balanced for it he lets himself drop.
But he didn't push out far enough away from the wall and the ground-floor windowsill cracks his knee just before he hits the ground. It upsets him and he sprawls, banging his knee again on a stone in the lawn. He lies still and breathes shallowly through his mouth and fights down the scream of pain. No one must hear him now. He must not be interrupted. He has four people to kill.
In the ticking dark rain he hears only the pneumatic swish of a car on the road some distance away. His eyes track it by the moving reflections of its lights on the underbellies of the clouds.
Pain slams through him in great battering waves. He waits for them to roll back. At the bright hot center of his thoughts is the plan, the next step; he tries to focus everything on that. But images of his enemies keep distracting him. The four hated ones. The doctors.
Now he moves experimentally to find out if he has broken the knee. The pain brings out his tears but he doesn't feel the grating of anything shattered. He is able to get to his feet and with a rough uncaring need to know he puts his weight on the bad knee. It holds. He limps, dragging the right leg across the grounds, carrying the knife and the blanket: these, and his pajamas, are his only possessions.
Near the end of the building behind him two windows are alight. None of the light reaches this far but even so the lawn is vaguely phosphorescent and his feet leave dark matted prints. He keeps turning his head, searching.
The knee is a great frightful agony. Rhythms of faintness beat through him. Now he is afraid for the first time—not afraid of men but afraid because he isn't at all sure he has the strength for the fence: can he do it on one good leg?
He does not see the fence at first but the sibilance of the rain gives way to a faint pinging and this sound, felt if not heard, determines the location of the fence for him. He extends a hand before him and gimps forward step by step until his splayed fingers penetrate the mesh.
He looks up but cannot see. Raindrops make him blink. Rut he knows this fence. Twelve feet high, heavy steel chainlink, and there are five strands of barbed wire running parallel at three-inch intervals, canted inward at the top. For all these months he has measured it in his mind and known that he can do it but that was counting on two good legs and now his fear takes the form of a great rage and he has to stifle a roar.
At the far end of the building a shadow passes across one of the lighted windows and Duggai's breath stops in his throat. He waits for the siren and the floodlights but knows this is only unreasoning fear: there won't be a bed check on the ward until dawn unless one of the crazies starts to demolish a bed or attack another inmate. On these wards such occurrences are not nearly as likely as they were in the old place, the Maximum Security Hospital. Rut the distinction has not made this ward any more bearable. They ought to kill a man rather than put him in a place like that. They do not understand, and their failure to understand is hilariously funny in its way because they are the ones who keep talking about understanding. We want to understand, Duggai, so that we can help you.
You can help me by setting me free of this place. This place is not fit for a human man. Such a place sucks the spirit from a human man. Put me in prison if you want: if I'm guilty by your law then punish me in prison. A man in a prison only needs to close himself off and wait out the time. Prison is not personal, it is just time to be passed. This place, all the picking and prying and understanding, this place with its machines and the needles and the pills and the lunatic inmates—the examinations of my blood, my breath, my urine, my feces—you are like shamans using my waste in a clay pot to foretell things as if I were a goat, you leave a man no dignity.
You are turkey buzzards picking over carrion; you make me into carrion for your pickings. That is not life. That is not what a man can endure. Life is dignity. I come from a line of people who tortured our enemies as a matter of course but we tortured them in good faith and allowed them to die, in the end, with dignity intact. We did not dismantle their insides and poke around their manure while they were still alive to watch us do it.
We want to understand, Calvin. You want to understand by destroying. You put the needle in my arm to draw blood and study it but what you really want to do is put the needle in my brain and study my spirit: you want to draw me out of the skull into your syringe and study it in a laboratory beaker, a curiosity, like something people stare at in a zoo.
You've tried every way you know to destroy my dignity. Dignity is a man's only possession in the end. You have failed to destroy mine but if you keep me here long enough I will lose strength and you will succeed after all. I will be worse than dead. A man can die but dignity can continue to inhabit his spirit.
And I am not dead yet anyway. I have things to do first.
Hate keeps him moving. He clamps his jaw with the anguish of the knee. He folds the blanket carefully over again and then rolls it neatly and drapes it around his neck. He gets the knife back into his teeth and crouches twice and straightens, experimenting. It is possible to mask the pain with hate: just think about the four of them. The muscles are working and that is what matters. He hooks his fingers through the chainlink mesh, testing it; he puts his toes into the wire and allows himself to sag, putting his weight on fingers and toes, feeling the metal cut into his flesh.
He knows it will have to be fast because he can't hold long; the wire cuts too fast. He releases the fence and steps back a pace, secures the blanket around his shoulders and goes into his crouch, spreading his hands until the palms touch the wet grass.
There is a flicker of light along the cloud bellies and he hears the hiss of another car going up the road on the hill. He feels chilled in the wet; his toes curl in the grass.
He makes the leap with all his strength. The stab of agony in the knee shocks him faint; he hears his own grunt of pain and clamps his lips shut on the knife, cutting his lip. His stretching fingers fumble against the mesh and he scrabbles for holds with his toes. The wire cuts into him. All his two hundred pounds are distributed on a few pieces of narrow steel wire and the effect is that of razor blades.
Pain is his existence, complete now. It does not increase when he removes one hand from the wire.
With the hand he snakes the blanket off his shoulders, shakes it out, unfurls it to its four-thickness fold, swings it overhead, slaps it blindly down, feels it drape over the barbed wire above him, feels across the blanket until through the cloth he finds a taut strand—the point of a steel barb bursts through the padding into his finger. He shifts his hand an inch to the left, between barbs, and clenches his grip.
He frees the other hand and both feet. Now he hangs full length by one hand from the blanket-padded barbed wire.
The rain beats against him. He gets the left hand up and gropes between the barbs. When he has his grip he heaves his left leg high, hooks his heel against the blanket and feels it slide over the barbed wire. A prick of steel rakes his calf but he drags himself up with his weight on the puncture, thinking of the free earth beyond, propelled by his hate, visualizing the four faces.
For a moment he is poised on top of the wire, tangled in folds of the sodden blanket, and he flashes on a monkey he saw high in a tree in montagnard country with fragmentation bombs exploding all around. Then he is rolling, switching his handgrips frantically, his legs swinging off into space.
He hangs free. His toes bang against the outside of the mesh and he swings his feet out and lets himself drop.
He tries to land mainly on the good left leg but the battered knee takes part of the fall and he cries out faintly. The knife drops from his mouth. He is on both hands and one knee, holding the injured knee protectively off the earth; he sobs, his agony beyond control.
The four of them. They put me in here. They could have sent me to prison but they sent me here. When men invade your spirit and trample your dignity they must be destroyed. That is the Old People's law and I am still one of them, one of the people of the high desert. They must be destroyed and I must be the instrument of their destruction and it must be appropriate to their offense. You do not simply kill such people because that would leave their spirits intact to follow you forever. You must cripple their spirits first by dominating them, by proving to their spirits that yours is the stronger spirit, by inflicting upon them tortures that you yourself can withstand.
Duggai lets himself down onto his left side and scrabbles with his hand in the wet weeds but he cannot find the knife.
The need for speed and distance overpowers everything else now. He leaves the knife behind, drags himself one-legged across the gravel and stickers, makes for the trees.
He looks back. The lamplit windows are only faint smudges of light.
But to keep it he must make distance. Against the twisting needles of pain he hobbles over the top of the hill and into the forest beyond. Twigs and stones lacerate his bare soles.
Finally there is the road.
He remembers coming through the town manacled in the back seat of the Department of Corrections sedan seven months ago. It is not more than two miles to the edge of town. If he keeps moving he can be there in an hour even on one leg.
He puts his good foot onto the road and limps into the drenching darkness.CHAPTER 2
Mackenzie's corded forearms wrestled the steering wheel. Insects crashed into the Jeep's windshield, leaving smears; on the highway ahead lay a black watery heat mirage. A roadside sign flashed past: "Industry we do desire.... Interested? Please Inquire!" The painted letters had been faded gray by the sun.
He left the blacktop at the head of the pass. The Jeep rattled across the rails of the cattle-guard and Mackenzie put it recklessly down the washboard ruts of the dirt road. Everything shook; there was a clattering din. Impelled by haste he didn't let up until he passed the turnoff to the Recreation Area. Then the road narrowed and began to twist and he was forced to drop it into second gear.
He went grinding on up into the pines; the Jeep humped painfully over roots and rocks. Finally in thinning air he reached the fork. Little shingle signs pointed both ways: RANGER STATION. CAMPGROUND. He went through the trees toward the station.
Smyley was at the foot of the fire tower waiting. "Heard you coming a mile back. You trying to wreck the Jeep or just set a new land-speed record?"
Mackenzie got out. The dog came out from under the cabin and stretched lazily and came forward to have her ears scratched. Mackenzie said, "Good pooch," and started to unload the supplies from the back of the Jeep.
Smyley waddled over. "Let me give you a hand."
Mackenzie didn't want help but there was no way to get rid of the relief man until the Jeep was unloaded. They hauled the grocery sacks inside the cabin.
Excerpted from Fear in a Handful of Dust by Brian Garfield. Copyright © 1978 John Ives. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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