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The air had the attitude of a belligerent teenager determined to get his way. If you were walking through the streets that night, you might shiver, blowing on your hands to keep them warm, tucking them deep into the pockets of your lined coat, glancing down for any lurking patches of ice, looking at each house number in vain, waiting for that illuminating moment when the wind would cease, the ground would clear, and your house would appear. Then, you could go inside, strike a match to light your fireplace and sit comfortably swaddled in a blanket, cupping a burning mug of tea that spread warmth and goodness throughout your body from the moment you took a sip.
When you reached your house, you would forget all about the outside world. I wouldn’t be able to, however, since that night I was at work digging a tunnel from the inside of my cell in the politely-named Detention Center in the middle of town, trying to get back out into that very world.
I had been digging for weeks, chipping away at the worn-down concrete walls. My grandmother was outside of those walls, getting sicker and sicker, and I was the only one that would be able to help her.
“Please, you have to help my grandma,” I would beg the guards every day, “She’s sick and all alone, and I’m the only one that can help her.”
“If she needs help that badly, then you shouldn’t have gotten yourself locked up in the first place,” the guards would scoff.
When I had gone, she had been unable to get out of bed or feed herself. But no one seemed to care about the grandmother of an inmate with two life sentences without parole.
“Maggie, you know how difficult it’s been for us here, and if anyone were to take note of us, and the way we’ve made our lives, we would be in very very big trouble, from more people than you know,” Grandma said, clutching at my hands with her shaking, thin fingers.
“Grandma, what do you mean? We just don’t have much right now, there’s nothing else wrong, is there?”
“There are things that you don’t know about your past that might come back to hurt you, hurt us. So please, don’t try to help me. It’ll only make things worse.”
My hands were numb from weeks of digging, and every night, nights just like tonight, after I pulled my bed over the hole I was creating in the wall, I would wash off the scrapes, massage the bruises and rub my wrists until the aching subsided, and fall into a fitful sleep. Nightmares that were full of nameless, large, faceless creatures chasing me through a forest, unseen plants and animals yanking at my feet, always trying to pull me down through the ground, haunted me night after night.
I woke from my sleep the next day, once again as I was trying to evade the creatures that attempted to pull me down, to the honking of the bell announcing morning roll call. As I did every morning, I leaped out from under the thin, fraying covers, frantically checking to make sure my bed covered the tunnel, even though I knew it had already been covered the night before. I heard the fast clumping of the warder’s march down the hallway and moved to the front of my cell, trying to adopt the sullen, angry look the other inmates had perfected, looking at the ceiling, and never making eye contact. The man passed in front of my cell, and I tried to breathe naturally as I carefully looked at him from the sides of my eyes. His jacket buttons, normally buttoned and polished to perfection, were done roughly, and the top button was left undone. His uniform cap was pulled down low over his face, casting a shadow that made it hard to discern his features.
The warder moved closer to my cell, and I tried to remain calm, still avoiding eye contact, when he spoke to me in a voice I couldn’t recognize from the other warders that usually came to check on us.
“It’s safer for you in here,” the man said. “If you got out, things could get very difficult for you, very quickly.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” I said, my eyes searching for his underneath the shadow created by his cap, “but I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Think about it, Maggie,” the man whispered, moving even closer to my cell so that the metal bars were only a thin barrier between us, “There are dangers for you everywhere. Don’t try to get out.”
My mouth hung open as the man stepped back, and I could feel my heart beating in my fingers as I gripped the metal bars. I was so stunned, I didn’t even try to stop the man as he moved away back into the harsh light of the hallway and continued the roll call.
Don’t escape? How did he know I was even trying? Don’t escape?
I staggered backwards, hands reaching behind me for the frame of my saggy, lumpy bed, and collapsed. All of the determination I had acted on for the past weeks, digging the tunnel through the cracked, crumbling foundation of the jail, breaking past rocks and cement and chunks of wood escaped me and I no longer felt so sure about my need to break out and try to save my grandmother.
Grandma. What did that man mean when he said there were dangers everywhere? Did he mean her? He couldn’t have. She needs my help.
Suddenly filled with a need to see the hole I had created, to get focused again on my goal to dig my way out and take care of the only person left in the world that loved me, I shifted my bed to the right, not even trying to conceal the sound of the bedposts screaming against the concrete ground. I knelt down, ready to keep digging—I was almost through after all; I could often feel the cold wind making its way down the tunnel and numbing my body—and looked towards where the hole was.
In its place was crumbling cement and cracked wood, placed just the way it had been when I began digging.