Dixon and I had been behind bars for seven years the night he told me he was leaving.
Years earlier, when the addictions were as young as I was, I had been on vacation with my family to Maui. We were all body surfing and having a good time in the sand, in the foam, in the sun. Until that one wave got me. It was all going according to plan until that thing took my feet and sent them over my head in all the ways that our bodies are not supposed to bend. (Well, unless you've been in yoga for a while.) I'll never forget the sound of my back cracking, amplified by the water, and my fear that my photo was going to be in the newspaper the following day: father, husband, paralyzed on vacation with his family.
Needless to say I made it.
I wasn't sure I was going to be able to say the same thing that night. I could almost hear my back cracking as the wave of emotion swept me up and almost out of the cell. Unfortunately, the steel bars were there and my head cracked into them, sending another wave of pain through my skull.
“Damn,” was all I could muster.
“I can’t take any more,” he answered, feigning sadness but only for me. I knew he was excited. I could see it in the dark eyes, doing the tango even while his mouth was trying to contain the joy. I figured he could taste the air that we all wanted to breathe. I could sometimes too, if I imagined it hard enough.
I broke the facade - for him - and gave him the huge smile he was holding back. “Damn,” I repeated. “I can’t wait to watch. When are you going?”
“Damn.” One more time, just because there was nothing else to say and sometimes that word expresses it all.
We had all seen the routine numerous times. The field was wide and long. Intentionally. The guards in the towers - with their rifles - could plainly see whomever risked running across their field. There was a forest about a hundred yards away but even for the world’s best sprinter that was numerous seconds. And the snipers only needed one or two to take their shot and a life with it.
The field was after the tunnel. We all knew where the tunnel started, it had been dug under a toilet years earlier. We had seen numerous others lift the entire thing up and head into the tube. If you want freedom, they say, you have to go through the shit. That was literal for us.
Word was that the tunnel was about 50 yards. A lifetime of crawling and puking in the clouds of filth. Hands and knees. Aching. Cutting yourself on old, rusted metal and opening up wounds that bacteria couldn’t wait to jump through and start breeding. If anyone got out, it was with an infection.
After that hell, and exhaustion, the field started. Despite the lack of energy, you had to find a reserve somewhere. And lots of luck or blessing or whatever you want to call it. You prayed those snipers were distracted or that their guns were jammed, although that was like praying for rain in the midst of a drought.
If somehow that miracle occurred, there was also the wall. It was twelve feet high, full of electricity and armed with barbed wire on its top. Not to mention the dogs that patrolled on a regular basis and were much faster than most humans. And meaner. And they could jump too.
You get the point. You might wonder why anyone would ever attempt it. Only because we had all seen it done. It was possible.
My pulse was all I could feel looking at Dixon that night. I had known him for seven years. We had talked about everything from kids to gods, from college football to cancer taking his best friend. We had talked about joy and pain and everything in between. I knew him maybe better than anyone. I was going to miss the hell out of him whether he made it or, god forbid, he didn’t.
But, if he made it, maybe there was a chance I could. At least, that’s what we always told each other. He was putting that to the test before me. But, in a sense, we were that night.
Maybe, I thought, squeezing him tight for the last time, tears streaming as fast as my heart was beating, that I might be able to squeeze him again.
“I’m going to miss you,” I managed.
“Not for long,” he smiled. “I’ll see you out there.”
His courage was contagious. I felt like he might make it. Damn. Could I?
We had all been through it before. We helped him into the hole beneath the toilet, holding our breath and tears back, and watched him disappear into the unknown. We put the toilet back, so the guards wouldn’t notice, and waited to be locked into our cells for the evening.
We each had a window facing out toward the field. On first glance, one would assume the nice prison architects put in the windows to be nice, to give us some daylight. But, it only took a few days to realize that wasn't the case. They were there to remind you every day of what was no longer yours. To torture your soul with what “could be”. To tempt us into life, if we weren’t too busy trying to survive in the meantime.
I never thought I’d see Dixon try to make the run through that window. But, I was about to.