Tommy lay back on his bed listening as the cacophony died out slowly back into the relative near-quiet of night, to the low institutional buzz of fluorescent bars in the hallway leaking in their light through the slit in his door, to the flow of air through the hidden corridors of vents, lying sprawled on top of the sheet, spread-eagled, eyes open and catching what little shine they could possibly reflect in the oppressive gloom of his cell. Darkness trapped within its confines along with him, darkness enfolding over him and enclosing him, darkness for company. Along with misery.
He lay a while longer, collecting and steeling himself for the actions ahead. He would have liked a smoke to calm his nerves, but the antismoking rules at the prison forbade it in the cells, or anywhere on the prison grounds for that matter, and he had anyway smoked his last smuggled cigarette several days ago. In lieu of a cigarette, he took a deep breath, exhaled, and did the same several more times. It was time to start. The next head count would be in two hours, and he had no idea how long it would take to saw through the bars of his window. He had better get moving. He rolled out of bed, deftly and silently landing on his feet, drawn in, tensed for action, and reached under his mattress, feeling for the slit in which Walters hid the hacksaw blade earlier. He reached up into it, fingering softly, gingerly, till he touched the cold, sharp tip squared at the end, feeling the cold, serrated teeth with his index finger that would eat away at the bars of his window before the screws came by cell to cell as they did with regularity, right on through the night.
Unsheathing it from the foam of his well-worn mattress, Tommy got to work, the metal on metal screech of the blade biting into the bars, biting into his ears, back and forth; and from the top, the first of the three flat window bars, painted white to match the featureless décor of the walls of his cell, began to give way stroke by stroke, a small pile of filings forming hot on the sill, sizzling to the touch from friction and from the heat of his efforts, his tongue bulging from his mouth and his eyes wide as he put every ounce and inch of his being into the hope of his liberation—
A montage of images, wordless, formed and dissolved as he did this as he entered a concentrated meditative state, the first of which was his fist punching through the window of his first foster home, his fist protected in the segmented padding of a hockey glove, his bedroom door locked from his grounding for the theft of his foster father’s pocket money. His first escape, down the ivy trellis clinging to the bricks, down into the garden, and out into the neighbourhood, and he fled the foreign country of suburbia into which he had been adopted from the refugee camp of Children and Youth Services—its cookie-cutter houses, its manicured hedges and picket fences, its children playing peaceably in the street unfamiliar and ill-fitting, a place to which he felt he would never assimilate. His flight ended less than a day later in a police station after being picked up by two cops on their beat who saw him milling around in a park when he should have been in school. His foster parents, the Henricksons, had him promptly sent back to the group home, and the institutionalized life to which he had grown accustomed continued after the month’s raucous reprieve.
The second, the look of his mother in court three years later as he was charged and sent to a juvenile reformatory for vandalizing and robbing a closed corner store on a dare, her line-drawn junkie’s face colourless and impassive, the face of a woman who’d long since lost custody of her surviving son, his brother Greg long since deceased, left shivering in his crib as she turned tricks for methadone, to which she’d become addicted after kicking heroin. He was surprised to even see her there at the hearing, looking at her in the gallery under the row of slowly turning ceiling fans, set against a giant painted portrait of the Queen in unintended irony, as he was led away in handcuffs, her mask of a face remaining as expressionless as the painted likeness framing her—what thoughts ran through her mind on that day? What did she think of her son now? What had she ever thought of him, the only parent of his he had ever gotten to know, his father walking out during the soft-focus impressions of his early childhood and never to be seen again, possibly if not probably in jail like his son, the tree not falling very far from the apple.
The third, springing over the wire of minimum security after a year and a half of a five year sentence, after a futile bank robbery that left him with scarcely a penny and holed up in a motel as a wailing, blaring chorus of sirens converged upon him. As he leapt over the fence, he felt both free and harried—he knew he couldn’t stop, that he had to hit the ground running and keep on running as fast as he possibly could. He lasted a week out in the world, breaking into a sporting goods store and stealing a gun and ammunition, and then robbing a bank out of financial desperation. To evade capture in the roadblocks thrown up by the police in the area, he hid out with his bag of money and was found by a farmer in a hayloft two days later, grubby and shivering, and marched out by shotgun and handed over to the police who came to get him inside the hour. His second escape three years later, from medium security, went better, he being able to hide out and spend time to rebuild his career as a thief—but within months came the disastrous robbery that left him here now sawing through his bars a decade later.
He paused a minute, looked at what he had done. He was three quarters through the top of the bar. His arm ached. He looked at his watch. He still had an hour and fifteen minutes till the next count. Sweat beaded on his forehead and he wiped it away with his hand. As he did so, he felt the faintest tinge of panic—could he finish the job in time?
He continued sawing, the little pile of filings accruing like the sand in an hourglass, the smoke and scorched smell of metal acrid to his nostrils, the screech of the blade grating on his ears. At long last, the bar gave way at the top and he wasted no time starting on the bottom, switching ends of the blade, the end he had used now hot and dull and slightly bent. As the minutes wore on the bar wore down, once again the tiny twisted filings like the shreds of a rubber eraser falling as he effaced with great effort the remainder of his sentence, arm burning and blade severing stroke by laboured stroke the reinforced alloy of the bar.