‘Why have all prison transports such lousy suspensions?’ Jerry thought to himself, as the retro-fitted school bus bounced him around like a bucking bronco. They hadn’t even bothered to take the faded, No 26, off the side.
He knew the world looked at him as a third-class entity, or even fourth, if there was such a thing. He was a three-time loser: drugs, laziness, and greed. They made sure he stayed locked up.
If anyone ever asked what he was in for he’d reply, “stupidity.” In prison, he was even more of a nobody than he’d been on the street. Any mystique he’d welded with the fools he called friends cut no mustard with the hard men behind bars. Life in prison was long stretches of boredom, punctuated with moments of outright fear. That’s what prison was – fear.
Jerry’s eyes were stinging.
“Hold still,” the doctor had said, pinning his eyes wide open as he sprayed that horrible smelling stuff in them. “This will make defects clearer on the scan.”
For months, his eyesight had been failing. His vision was blurred and narrowing. Now, things were just smudges of light and dark.
He gazed through the grill fitted outside the bus window. He wondered if these snow-covered fields were going to be his last glimpse of the world. The trip to the eye specialist, in Fargo, had been a welcome break from the daily grind of life in the James-River Correctional Facility.
The James-River bus was decrepit. He was surprised it still ran. It was colder in here than outside, if that’s possible. He shivered, despite the duffel coat he wore over his prison jump-suit and the shackles on his wrists rattled. Fat Pauli was driving the bus and guarding him. Fat was no understatement when it came to Pauli. He was two hundred and eighty pounds of bone-idle blubber. They didn’t bother sending a second guard, with Jerry being nearly blind. The falling apart bus, and lack of guards, reinforced Jerry’s belief that he was less than worthless.
Fat Pauli fumed behind the wheel as they crawled along at four miles an hour, his massive bulk blocking the tiny farts coming from the air-con unit. Whatever the hold-up was, it didn’t bother Jerry, he had years to kill. Pauli, on the other hand, was going to be late for his Friday night poker game. When they reached Casselton, his minder had had enough of the tail-back. He swung the creaking rust-covered bus off the Interstate, and onto a rutted back road.
“Hold on to your breeches, this is going to be bumpy,” he yelled over his shoulder, as he ground up through the gears. They gathering speed and shimmied on down the road, sliding on the frozen snow. They should be using snow-chains for going on such backroads, but Pauli probably knew what he was doing.
“I know every shortcut in the state,” he yelled back at Jerry, sounding like a red neck tour guide.
“Don’t go rushing on my account, Officer,” he said, settling back like he was being chauffeur driven. He caught the angry crease in Pauli fat forehead and smiled to himself. The bus picked up pace, making the ride even more uncomfortable. The road narrowed and soon trees replaced open farmland. Then the road began to snake. Pauli’s fat foot was still planted firmly on the accelerator, when a deer bounded out of a bush. It was only a reactionary flick of the wheel, but it was enough to send the rickety bus sliding full force into a massive pine tree. Like all the bad luck in his life, Jerry never saw it coming.
Cold air brought him round. He was sore but not the searing pain of broken bones or ripped flesh. His eyes took in what they could and he picked out the slumped figure of Pauli, his jelly belly swallowing half the dash. Jerry got his feet under him and moved to the front of the wrecked bus.
“Hay,” he called, but the guard didn’t move. “Pauli, wake up man!” That was when he noticed the trickle of blood that ran from the man’s cauliflower shaped ear.
“Aww shit man, what the fuck Jerry?” he said to himself. He didn’t like Pauli but he didn’t want him dead either. The cold rushing into the wrecked vehicle soon snapped him out of his stupor. He couldn’t just stay here; he’d freeze to death. He was on a tiny back-road, miles from anywhere and in the middle of a blizzard. If he was getting out of this, he was getting himself out. Through the separation grill, he could see the bunch of keys dangling from Paulie’s belt. He reached his fingers through the metal lattice but couldn’t reach. He looked around and noticed the grill on a window near the back of the bus had popped off. He shuffled back and got his fingers around the edge, then pulled for all he was worth. He shot back on his ass as the grill came off.
He eased himself out the smashed window and sank up to his knees in the fresh snow. He waded toward the crushed front of the bus and climbed into the cab. He shook Pauli by the shoulder, but it was useless. He was gone.
“Looks like you took your last detour, Chief,” he said to the dead man and unclipped the keys from his belt. Once he’d got his handcuffs off, he took Pauli’s winter coat and snow boots. They were no use to him now. Jerry took the guards wallet but left the gun. It was one thing to be on the run, but another thing to be on the run and armed. That was sure to get you shot first, questioned later. Time to move.
All night, he ploughed through the woods of Fort Ranson State Park, the trees blocking the worst of the winter wind. Even double coated, he was frozen to the core and now it was snowing again.
“Just keep moving,” he said to himself, but his body desperately needed to stop. His limbs were numb and he was dog tired.
“You stop, you die,” he told himself again and again, but his lips couldn’t stop trembling. At least the falling snow covered all signs of his passing, not that his eyes could see his trail anyway.
Morning came, and with it the first helicopter. Twice he had to bury himself deep in snowdrifts to hide from the thermal cameras. Eventually, they moved off and he trudged on. The woods thinned out as he rose higher into the mountain. Scrub, covered by deep snow, made the going hard.
“Shit! Fuck! Bastard!” he exclaimed, each time his numb legs vanished under him, threatening to break a bone or twist an ankle. Eventually the inevitable happened.
“For fuck sake! Fuck!” he shouted, grabbing his shin. His fingers came away covered in blood. His numb hand felt a taut string of barbed wire, hidden under the snow.
“Barbed wire means livestock. Livestock means farmers, and farmers mean farmhouses,” he said, trying to see the best side to his injury. His deficient eyes scanned the vast expanse of white, squinting to help them focus. In the distance, he had a notion of a darker area, squarer than nature is fond of making. He moved toward it slowly, testing each step for hidden dangers.
The barn was abandoned, or only used for high grazing in the summer months. The door hung by one hinge and slammed in the wind. He slipped inside, pulling it shut behind him. This felt like heaven, anything to be out of that wind. Gaps in the timber siding let in beams of winter light but they did little to dispel the gloom. In this half-light, he was as good as blind. He felt his way deeper into the barn and found a mound of brittle hay. He threw himself into it, exhaustedly, and sleep came in an instant.
It was fully dark when he woke, the growling of his stomach rousing him. He hadn’t eaten in two days now, and was starving. But worse than the hunger was his thirst. He pushed himself up on his elbows, hearing another low, rumbling, growl, but this one came from his left, not his stomach. Wolf, was all he could think. He backed away until his shoulders brushed some tools leaning against the wall. He grabbed a handle and held whatever it was out, to fend off the attack that was sure to come. The growl came again.
“Easy boy,” he said, and felt along the wall until his fingers found the door. He pushed it open and felt the bite of the storm outside. Inside were fangs, and outside was freezing. He was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Keeping the door open, he huddled out of the worst of the wind and waited for something happen, but nothing did. The hours passed and the growls subsided. An uneasy truce seemed to have been called. Both beasts realized shelter would have to be fought for, or shared. Sharing seemed to be the common choice.
Dawn came, sending golden light creeping into the barn. In the far corner, Jerry could just make out glowing yellow eyes, hovering in the darkness. As the light grew stronger, the wolf in the corner was transformed into a skinny mongrel, its ribs standing out under paper-thin skin. Jerry lowered his shovel, and said, “You scared the shit out of me boy.” With the immediate treat lifted, his thirst returned with a vengeance.
He found a rusted bean tin which he filled with snow and held it close to his body. As he waited for the snow to melt, the dog watched his every move. He searched the building for something edible, and came up empty handed.
“I may as well be on a desert island,” he mumbled to himself. He was soon getting sips of metallic tasting water from this can. As he drank, the dog watched him, pleadingly.
“What lockup are you running from?” he asked the pup, and as if knowing the question was for him, the dog’s ears pricked up. This got Jerry laughing and the dog settled his chin against the floor.
“We’d picked a hell of a barn to hide in,” he said to the mutt. With that, the dog began to whine.
“Oh, come on! It’s not that bad,” he said to his new cellmate, but soon the dog began to shiver and shake. Jerry edged closer, a step at a time. That was when he found out this little dog wasn’t a dog at all, but a bitch, soon to be a mommy.
“Good Girl, it will be ok,” he cooed at her, but stayed out of snapping range. She eyed him with pain filled eyes, deep pools of hurt and mistrust. They said to him, I got bigger fish to fry right now, you can stay but no touching -OK. Jerry got the message loud and clear.
The morning hours passed as the mangy little dog shuddered through labour and into birth. Jerry found a dish and poured some water into it for her, shoving it towards her mussel with his toe. She cocked her head and lapped it greedily. Jerry topped it up as quickly as his body could melt more snow. The hours ticked by and three little puppies arrived. Two flopped to the ground, slimy and still. The little black dog nursed them with her long pink tongue, but her efforts were for nothing.
“You’re a great little mommy, you know that girl? It’s not your fault,” he said, but the sight of the two little puppies broke both their hearts.
As the third pup entered the world, the little dog licked with vigour. She cleaned his baby-pink nose and rubbed his chest with her glistening snout. She licked and licked until the puppy let out a weak cry. The dog’s ears perked up, and if a dog is capable of smiling, this one grinned from ear to ear.
“Would you get a load of that,” Jerry said, forgetting himself and reaching out to rub the little dogs head. As his palm touched the dog’s neck, she went rigid, looking sideways at him. They both stayed like this for what seemed like ages but she made the first move. She lowered her head and she resumed cleaning her new-born, happy to have Jerry’s hand resting on her fur. He stroked her neck and felt the touch of another living creature for the first time in years. There’s not much touching in prison, well, not the enjoyable kind anyway. When nobody else on earth could give a damn, she accepted him. He watched as the little mother pushed her baby toward painfully empty teats and that was when he noticed a small dribble of blood.
“That don’t look right girl, that don’t look right at all,” he said, but what could he do about it. He watched as the little pup began to suckle, as its momma’s head flopped to the floor. Jerry stroked the dog’s neck. Slowly the pool of red was getting bigger.
“You did so good,” he said, feeling his eyes grow misty. In the distance he heard the, woop-woop-woop, of a chopper as he looked into those innocent eyes. They were closing in on him. It was only a matter of time. Her eyes began to close and her breathing was getting rapid and shallow. The life was draining out of her and Jerry hoped she wasn’t in any pain. She lay her head against his leg as the effort of holding it up became too much. She was slipping away. She had given up everything for her baby, but it hadn’t been enough. It was going to become an orphan, and in this frozen wasteland, survival would be impossible.
“No more pain for you. Rest now, Girl. I’ll take care of your little one,” he said, rubbing the dog’s neck one last time. He scooped up the tiny crying pup and laid it where the little dog could see it. Weakly, her long pink tongue licked the tiny blind pup, and with three happy swishes of her tail, the light in those beautiful eyes faded. Wiping away tears, Jerry held little pup against the dog’s tummy, helping it to find a teat, and take in whatever milk it could. The next few hours could be very long for the both of them.
Jerry found some old sacking and made a pouch, which he stuffed with straw, to keep the pup warm on the journey. Once the pup was well wrapped up, he opened his jacket and put little fella inside, where it could feel the beat of his heart and get the heat of his body. He trudged out into the night, heading back toward the road. It was a huge chance to take but this little guy needed his help.
He hadn’t gone very far when a bull horn blared, “Freeze! US Marshals. Put your hands in the air.”
“Don’t shoot,” he yelled, to the voice he couldn’t see.
“Get your god-damn-hands in the air,” came the reply.
“OK. OK, don’t fuckin shoot,” he shouted, realising that this was going to be for the best. It was a pipe dream to think he could have made it back to civilisation and still keep his freedom. This way, he’d be back in custody, but the pup would be warm and safe. They might even let him keep it. Jerry raised his left hand high, but as he tried to pull out the hand holding the pup, a shot rang out. It was like being kicked by a mule. He’d never been shot before. He lay on his back, gasping for air when a forest of gun-barrels filled his vision.
“Get that god-damn-gun,” a faceless voice commanded. Jerry sucked at the air but it wouldn’t go in his lungs. He felt the blood bubble up in his throat. A rough hand ripped open his jacket and grabbed the piece of sackcloth. The pup gave a cry.
“Jesus, it wasn’t a gun,” the trooper said, pushing back his helmet, reviling a startled, but kind face.
Jerry managed to wave the man closer, and whispered, “Take care of that little guy, he’s all I got.” Jerry looked down and saw the tiny black puppy lick once at his knuckle, before the sight finally fell from his eyes.
Check out more of Squids short stories on his blog at squidmcfinnigan.blogspot.com