Brian Garfield

Fear in a Handful of Dust


When the lights go off Calvin Duggai lies still and gapes straight up into the darkness while he absorbs the night through his ears.

He hears the slap of the bolt and the male nurse’s footsteps pocking away down the corridor; he hears the squeak of springs, the rustle of bedclothes along the ward. He hears Joley’s fear-of-darkness whimpering and someone’s catarrhal snort arid the empty bitter cough of an inmate’s laughter.

Duggai’s stomach churns. A tight ache spans his skull. Air conditioning pushes the rancid air around but does not leach it of the sick smells of fear-sweat and incontinence and incipient nausea.

Hate spins through him-just now it is unfocused, directionless. Its only restraint is purpose: he must will chaos away. He pushes the pain far back out of his awareness because everything needs to be precise now and he has no leeway for the carelessness that rage could cause.

He reviews the steps, isolating each move in his mind, visualizing, seeking weaknesses-here a point of risk, there a need for swiftness and silence. The rain came suddenly this evening: until then he wasn’t quite ready; the pumping of blood through his temples has been very fast during the past few hours and now he must double his caution because the impatience of weariness may betray him otherwise. If anything comes awry then the entire scheme will collapse because they won’t merely put him back in here, they’ll take him back to the other place with its armed male nurses and its concrete walls from which there is no escape.

When he judges them to be all asleep Duggai lifts his legs off the bed and sits up until his bare feet touch the cold floor. The air conditioning rumbles and he listens beyond it, judging the sounds of men’s breathing, turning his head slowly to catch every angle against the flats of his eardrums. There must be no alarm.

He puts his weight on his feet and strips the blanket slowly off the bed. He folds it because he can’t have a loose edge drag against someone’s foot in the dark. He pads down the length of the ward and carries the blanket into the bathroom, closes the door tight, shutting himself in, dropping the folded blanket to one side.

The silence is abrupt. In the absence of the numerous sounds of human life he now hears the drift of rain upon the roof overhead.

He moves confidently without needing light; long ago his feet memorized the dimensions. The faint hint of illumination defines the high vent window-heavier vertical stripes are the steel bars set into the opening. Even without its bars it would be too small for Duggai to wriggle through.

He crouches. Under the third sink his hands move with quick familiarity: a deft spanning and twisting of the wide fastenings until the elbow of drainpipe comes free. He upends it into his palm and the kitchen knife drops into his hand, a reassuring weight. He lays the pipe elbow aside on the floor with silent care; to replace it would take time and he has examined each step carefully from all directions and determined that there is no need to replace the pipe because they will know about the breakout anyway. It has taken him years in the other place and months in this one to work out the plan and fix each detail in his mind; this is the night he has aimed for and he moves swiftly without waste.

Four paces take him to the outside wall. With the blade he unscrews the four screws that hold the plywood panel over the cavity in the wall (access to the incoming hot and cold water pipes). It has taken several months’ nightly work with fingers and the table knife to cut through the outside paneling and scrape through the stucco. Eight nights ago the knife went through free to the outside of the building and he knew he’d cut his way close enough. Since then it has been a matter of waiting: he has waited for a night black with rain.

He hikes himself up to the window, hanging on the ledge by his fingers, peering out. The rain is opaque. In his imagination he can see the lawn, the high fence, the trees beyond the fence. To the left he can see rain slanting into yellow light from a window farther along the building but that is a safe distance away.

On the floor he lies back and kicks the wall out.

The months of digging have weakened it. The three-foot segment of stucco gives way neatly to his barefoot kick.

He hears it break apart when it strikes the lawn fourteen feet below. A damp soft thudding of pieces. He lies absolutely still now, ears keening the night. The fresh smell of rain seeps in through the hole, dispelling the bathrooms disinfectant air. Duggai feels around the hole with his fingers, finds a jutting edge of stucco and breaks it off, sets it aside and puts the knife in his teeth and wraps the blanket around his shoulders; and goes out feet first.

He wriggles out belly-down and blind, his back to the night. Raindrops soak the pajamas to his legs. The cold rain makes him wince. He grips a pipe and lowers his body until he hangs full length against the outside wall, toes touching the rough surface. Without hurry he gathers himself. When he is balanced for it he lets himself drop.

But he didn’t push out far enough away from the wall and the ground-floor windowsill cracks his knee just before he hits the ground. It upsets him and he sprawls, banging his knee again on a stone in the lawn. He lies still and breathes shallowly through his mouth and fights down the scream of pain. No one must hear him now. He must not be interrupted. He has four people to kill.

In the ticking dark rain he hears only the pneumatic swish of a car on the road some distance away. His eyes track it by the moving reflections of its lights on the underbellies of the clouds.

Pain slams through him in great battering waves. He waits for them to roll back. At the bright hot center of his thoughts is the plan, the next step; he tries to focus everything on that. But images of his enemies keep distracting him. The four hated ones. The doctors.

Now he moves experimentally to find out if he has broken the knee. The pain brings out his tears but he doesn’t feel the grating of anything shattered. He is able to get to his feet and with a rough uncaring need to know he puts his weight on the bad knee. It holds. He limps, dragging the right leg across the grounds, carrying the knife and the blanket: these, and his pajamas, are his only possessions.

Near the end of the building behind him two windows are alight. None of the light reaches this far but even so the lawn is vaguely phosphorescent and his feet leave dark matted prints. He keeps turning his head, searching.

The knee is a great frightful agony. Rhythms of faintness beat through him. Now he is afraid for the first time-not afraid of men but afraid because he isn’t at all sure he has the strength for the fence: can he do it on one good leg?

He does not see the fence at first but the sibilance of the rain gives way to a faint pinging and this sound, felt if not heard, determines the location of the fence for him. He extends a hand before him and gimps forward step by step until his splayed fingers penetrate the mesh.

He looks up but cannot see. Raindrops make him blink. Rut he knows this fence. Twelve feet high, heavy steel chainlink, and there are five strands of barbed wire running parallel at three-inch intervals, canted inward at the top. For all these months he has measured it in his mind and known that he can do it but that was counting on two good legs and now his fear takes the form of a great rage and he has to stifle a roar.

At the far end of the building a shadow passes across one of the lighted windows and Duggai’s breath stops in his throat. He waits for the siren and the floodlights but knows this is only unreasoning fear: there won’t be a bed check on the ward until dawn unless one of the crazies starts to demolish a bed or attack another inmate. On these wards such occurrences are not nearly as likely as they were in the old place, the Maximum Security Hospital. Rut the distinction has not made this ward any more bearable. They ought to kill a man rather than put him in a place like that. They do not understand, and their failure to understand is hilariously funny in its way because they are the ones who keep talking about understanding. We want to understand, Duggai, so that we can help you.

You can help me by setting me free of this place. This place is not fit for a human man. Such a place sucks the spirit from a human man. Put me in prison if you want: if I’m guilty by your law then punish me in prison. A man in a prison only needs to close himself off and wait out the time. Prison is not personal, it is just time to be passed. This place, all the picking and prying and understanding, this place with its machines and the needles and the pills

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