Escape from Furnace
By Alexander Gordon Smith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2009 Alexander Gordon Smith
All rights reserved.
NO WAY OUT
If I stopped running I was dead.
My lungs were on fire, my heart pumping acid, every muscle in my body threatening to cramp. I couldn't even see where I was going anymore, my vision fading as my body prepared to give in. If the siren hadn't been hammering at my eardrums, then I'd have been able to hear my breaths, ragged and desperate, unable to pull in enough air to keep me going.
Just one more flight of stairs, one more and I might make it.
I forced myself to run faster, the metal staircase rattling beneath my clumsy steps. Everywhere around me other kids were panicking, all bolting the same way, to safety. I didn't look back to see what was behind us. I didn't need to. I could picture it in my head, its demonic muzzle, silver eyes, and those teeth — like razor wire.
Someone grabbed my arm, pulling me back. I lost my balance, spilling over the railing. For a second the yard appeared five stories beneath me and I almost let myself go. Better this way than to be devoured, right? Then the beast shrieked through its wet throat and I started running again before I even knew I was doing it.
I heard the rattle of the cell doors, knew they were closing. If I was caught out here, then I was history. I leaped up the last few steps, hurtling down the narrow landing. The inmates jeered from their cells, shouting for me to die. They stuck out their arms and legs to trip me, and it almost worked. I staggered, lurched forward, falling.
Somehow I made it, swinging through the door an instant before it slammed shut, the mechanism locking tight. The creature howled, a banshee's wail that made my skin crawl. I risked looking back through the bars, saw its huge bulk bounding past my cell, no skin to hide its grotesque muscles. There was a scream as it found another victim, but it didn't matter. I was safe.
"That was close," said a voice behind me. "You're getting good at this."
I didn't answer, just stared out across the prison. Six stories of cells beneath me and God only knew how many more above my head, all buried deep underground. I felt like the weight of the world was pressing down on me, like I'd been buried alive, and the panic began to set in. I closed my eyes, sucking in as much of the hot, stale air as I could, trying to picture the outside world, the sun, the ocean, my family.
All things I would never see again.
"Yup," came the voice, my cellmate. "Bet it's starting to feel like home already."
I opened my eyes and the prison was still there. Furnace Penitentiary. The place they send you to forget about you, to punish you for your crimes, even when you didn't commit them. Only one way in and no way out. Yeah, this was my home now, it would be until I died.
That wouldn't be long. Not with the gangs that eyeballed me from behind their bars. Not with the blacksuits, the guards who ran their shotguns along the railings as they checked the cells. Not with those creatures, raw fury in their eyes and blood on their breath.
And there were worse things in Furnace, much worse. Maybe tonight the blood watch would come, drag me from my cell. Maybe tonight they'd turn me into a monster.
I dropped to my knees, cradling my head in my hands. There had to be a way out of here, a way to escape. I tried to find one in the hurricane of my thoughts, tried to come up with a plan. But all I could think about was how I came to be here, how I went from being a normal kid to an inmate in the worst hellhole on Earth.
How I ended up in Furnace.
I can tell you the exact moment that my life went to hell.
I was twelve, two years ago now, and there was trouble at school. No surprise there, I came from a rough part of town and everybody wanted to be a gangster. Each lunchtime the playing field became a battleground for the various groups of friends. Most of the war was fought with words — we'd call each other names, we'd tell one gang to move out of our area (we had control of the jungle gym, and we weren't going to give it up). I didn't realize until much later just how like a prison school can be.
Every now and again something would kick off and fists would start flying. I never threw a punch in all my time at school; even the thought of it makes me feel queasy. But that doesn't make me any better than the boys and girls who got their hands dirty. It makes me worse — at least fighting with your own two fists is kind of noble.
That Tuesday started off like a normal day. I had no idea that it was the beginning of the end, my first step on the road to hell. Me and Johnny and Scud had been sitting on the jungle gym, talking about soccer, and about who'd been the best English keeper of all time. It was one of those days where everything just seemed like it was perfect. You know, a blue sky that goes on forever, and so warm that it feels like the sun's wrapped you up in a blanket. When I think back to my life before it turned, I think about this day. I think about how things could have been different, if I'd just walked away.
But I didn't walk away when Toby and Brandon dragged this little kid across the playground. I didn't walk away when they started pushing and shoving him and asking him questions about why his daddy drove him to school in a Range Rover. I didn't walk away when Toby threw the first punch and the kid crumpled. I didn't walk away when Brandon dug the kid's wallet from his pocket and threw it to me.
Instead, I opened that wallet, took out two ten-pound notes, and crammed them into my pocket. Then I turned my back on the sound of muffled punches, and thought about what I'd buy.
That was the exact moment my life went to hell.
"Always trust your instincts, Alex," was something my dad used to say. He was no stranger to trouble: nothing serious, but a couple of dodgy business deals that hadn't gone the way he'd wanted. A good man, if a little lost, and not the sort of person qualified to give you advice like that.
But he was right. Your instincts are there for a reason, and on the day that I walked out of school with Daniel Richards's twenty quid they were screaming for me to find the little kid and give it back. You can probably guess by now that I didn't. No, I learned to ignore my instincts, to switch off the little voice that tells you not to do things, to deny the fact that I hated myself for what I was doing.
And that's how I became a criminal.
The thing is, it was so easy. It started off with me, Toby, and Brandon walking around the playground demanding money from the other kids. The kind of thing you always see in films, just before the big, ugly bully gets his comeuppance. Only I was thin and scrawny, not bad-looking, and I didn't get my comeuppance for another two years.
Loose change, a fiver every now and again, and occasionally some candy — it wasn't enough. When Toby suggested we break into a house or two, Brandon backed out. I didn't. Greed wouldn't let me. So we did; we hit a small bungalow three roads over from my house, one we knew was empty for the night. Around three hundred quid stuffed in a fake can and a bundle of jewelry that we chickened out of selling and ended up throwing in the trash.
I still haven't forgotten the old lady who lived there — glimpsed with a long-dead husband in the faded photographs on the mantelpiece — and the knowledge that those rings meant more to her than any amount of money. But I buried my doubts just like I buried all my other uncomfortable thoughts. Committing any crime can be easy if you don't think about it.
And I never thought about the future, not once. Even though everybody was talking about the tougher police forces. Even though there was zero tolerance on youth crime after the so-called Summer of Slaughter, when the gangs went on killing sprees. Even though they'd built the Furnace Penitentiary — the toughest maximum-security prison in the world for young offenders, the place that would swallow you whole if you were ever unlucky enough to walk through its doors. I remember the shivers that went up my spine when I first saw pictures of Furnace on TV, but I never once thought I'd end up there. Not me.
Of course, I knew I couldn't go on like this forever, but so long as the money kept coming in I managed to convince myself that I was invincible, that nothing would ever happen to me. On my thirteenth birthday I bought myself a new bike, on my fourteenth a top-of-the-line computer. I was king of the world and nobody could stop me.
But all those dark, horrible feelings I'd buried were still there, I could feel them churning and growing somewhere inside of me. Deep down I knew I was heading for a fall, one that I'd never be able to pick myself up from.
And, as in all good crime movies, that fall came with one last job.
ONE LAST JOB
The house was empty, we knew it. Toby had been tipped off by a friend of a friend that the owners were away for the week, leaving behind enough electronic equipment to entertain a small country and a massive bundle of cash from their coffee-shop business.
But we were waiting outside just in case, cowering under a small bush in the back garden with only a solid wall of rain between us and a set of big windows.
"Come on, Alex," muttered Toby, wiping water from his face. "It's emptier than Elvis's coffin in there!"
Toby had a thing for Elvis. He loved his music so much that he refused to believe the King was dead. I ignored the comment and scanned the back of the house. The lights were all off and we hadn't seen a single movement from inside for the half hour we'd been here.
Toby was right, it was probably empty, but the last thing I wanted was to run into some furious guy who'd decided to stay home. It had happened once before when we'd hit a large house out in the countryside and I'd come face-to-face with a man on the way to the toilet. We'd both stared at each other in shock for what seemed like hours, then screamed in perfect harmony. I'd turned and legged it with him on my tail. It was even scarier than it sounds — he'd been stark naked.
Fortunately nothing like that had happened since, but I was eager to avoid any more encounters with homeowners, clothed or not.
Toby nudged me and I nodded, feeling a trickle of cold water slide down my back. We were sheltered from the worst of the downpour by the bush, but every now and again drips would snake down our faces and necks with an infuriating tickling sensation. Back then I thought it was like Chinese water torture. I know different now.
"Okay," I whispered, getting to my feet and rubbing the life back into my numb legs. It was a bitterly cold winter night, but through a break in the clouds the light from the moon made the world glow like it was covered in silver polish. If I hadn't been so focused on breaking the law, I might have stopped to admire the sight.
Taking a deep breath, I jogged across the garden to the sitting room windows, trampling over the flower beds to avoid making a noise on the gravel. I stopped when I heard an angry mutter behind me and turned to see Toby hopping across the mud on one leg and holding his other foot in his hands.
"Cat crap!" he hissed at me, his expression one of disgust mixed with disbelief. "Why do I always manage to put my foot in crap?"
I wanted to smile but I couldn't. I was too pumped up — adrenaline flooded my whole body like it did before every job, making my heart beat faster than a hummingbird's wings and sharpening my senses. I felt like an animal, aware of every sound and sight and smell and ready to turn and flee at the first sign of trouble.
Reaching into the long pockets of my coat I pulled out the only two pieces of equipment, aside from a flashlight, that a burglar ever needs — a glass cutter and the sticky dart from a toy gun. Licking the suction cup on the tip of the dart I pressed it against the bottom right pane. After a couple of tugs to make sure it was secure I pressed the blade to the glass and cut a smooth circle. Pocketing the cutter I pulled the dart gently and the glass popped free, leaving a handy hole in the window.
"Voilà!" I whispered, grinning despite the unbearable tension of the situation. "Do the honors, Tobster."
I stood to one side and looked at Toby, who was trying to clean his shoe on the soil of the flower bed. Each time he wiped it giant clumps of mud stuck to the mess until his shoe was lost in a massive brown ball — like he'd just put his foot through a coconut.
"Toby!" I shouted. He snapped to attention, pouting.
"These cost a hundred quid," he said.
"Well, buy yourself some new ones with the money you make tonight," I replied, running my hands through my soaking hair. "Buy yourself twenty pairs."
Toby grinned back and walked to the window, sliding his small hand inside and fiddling with the clasp. After a few seconds there was a loud click and the window creaked open.
"Wow," he said, in shock. "That was almost too easy."
I thought so too. It was too easy. I should have guessed then that something funny was going on, but greed is a powerful thing, and all I wanted was to get inside and get out again with as much loot as I could carry. If all went to plan, the proceeds from tonight would mean neither of us had to hit another house for months.
"Right, let's do this," I said, gritting my teeth and pulling the window right open. The room inside was dark, but I could make out rows of shelves and a couple of sofas inside. Several unblinking red lights stared at us out of the shadows, and I imagined the eyes of some hellish guard dog that would bound from the darkness, fangs bared — ready to chew any intruders to pieces.
But they weren't eyes, they were the standby lights from a fortune in electronics that would soon be safely in our bags.
"I'll go first," said Toby. "Give me a leg up." He raised his foot but I didn't move.
"I'm not touching that," I said, looking at the giant clumps of mud and crap that looked like they'd been welded to his sneaker. "Why don't you give me a foot up."
He sighed and linked his two hands together to form a cradle. Bracing my foot in his grip, I pushed upward, getting one knee on the window frame and pulling myself inside. Scanning the dark interior to make sure it was empty, I skipped down onto the floor, not making a sound on the soft carpet.
Toby was at the window holding two duffel bags and I took them from him before grabbing his arm and hoisting him up. He was almost in when his soiled shoe slipped on the wood of the window frame. With a yelp that was deafening after the tense silence, he fell on me, sending us and a nearby plant stand crashing to the floor.
For a second, neither of us could move a muscle. I lay there with Toby's weight on top of me, barely able to hear anything over my thrashing heart. But there was no sound of slamming doors or terrified screams or feet trampling down the stairs. At least we knew for sure now that the house was empty — Toby's clumsiness would have woken the dead.
Pushing him off me, I got to my feet and picked up my bag, offering Toby a hand.
"Sorry about that," he said sheepishly, pulling himself up.
"Never mind, you lump," I replied. "You start putting away some of this electronic stuff, I'm gonna go find the cash."
"Ten-four," said Toby, pulling a flashlight from his bag and aiming the beam at the row of high-tech gadgets lined up underneath the enormous television. I left him to it, pulling out my own flashlight and making my way out of the door.
You never really get over the sensation of being in someone else's house without their permission. Everything is different — the smell, the atmosphere, even the air tastes strange. I guess that's something to do with the reason I'm always in another person's home. It's as if the building itself doesn't want you there, like it's just waiting for you to slip up before it sucks you into some dark room forever.
Trying to ignore my thoughts, I made my way down a small hallway toward the stairs. According to Toby's friend of a friend, the owners had stashed the week's takings in a tin inside their office, along with a bundle of cash from a charity gig they'd held at the weekend. It should be a piece of cake. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Lockdown by Alexander Gordon Smith. Copyright © 2009 Alexander Gordon Smith. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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