by Colleen Sutherland
He grabbed the seeds and ran out the door. “I ain't a fuckin' farmer,” he screamed at the tractor though the guy couldn't hear him over the engine noise. He threw the packets at the machine but the wind picked them up. They flew back in his face and on into the marsh. Later he realized he didn't even know if the farmer left those seeds but he was the only other human around.
That night it rained as hard a rain as he had ever seen. Lightening shot across the horizon. The lights flickered but stayed on. He decided to take a break from escaping. He roamed around the house. There was an old television but analog TVs no longer worked in a digital age. He tried a radio that dated from a time when FM didn't exist but got only static. Nothing electronic was working except for the lights and the stove. There were books, mostly old classics, and a bunch of Readers' Digests. He wasn't much of a reader anyhow.
He looked through the cupboards. There were cracked dishes and cups and rusted cast iron pots. He took inventory of the food. For some reason most of it was tuna. There was a lot of it for an abandoned farmhouse, but then nothing about this place made any sense. There were a lot of bugs, too. He found an insect guide among the books and amused himself identifying them: box elder bugs, lady bugs and earwigs. As fast as he killed them, even more appeared on the walls. Somewhere inside the walls he could hear rustlings, rats or mice he thought. He hoped not bats. He didn't like bats.
He slept half the day and into the night as the rain clattered on the roof. He woke in the night and wandered around trying to find something to do to pass the time. Perhaps someone left maps behind, that would be useful. The only map he could find was from New Jersey and as far as he could figure out that was five states a way. It was thirty years old anyhow. He settled down to read the jokes in the Reader's Digests.
The sun rose on a cloudless day and the constant sound of the tractor. That farmer never let up.
He drank his coffee while he considered what to do. He would escape tonight but he didn't want to go back into the swamp. He climbed the narrow steps up to the attic and looked out the windows to check out the terrain. He made up his mind. He would leave again but this time he would go through the fields heading toward the country road he could see in the distance. No more getting lost in the forest and marsh. He would take his chances at being seen. He spent the day packing everything he would need in an old canvas rucksack he found in a cubbyhole and attached the ax to a loop in the bag.
He waited until midnight. As he slipped out the door, the night noises assaulted him. Crickets. Whippoorwills. Owls. They gave him the willies but after two nights in a marsh he could live with that. The furrows the farmer plowed up were something else. He kept slipping in and out of them, his boots getting muddier and muddier. He fell four times but pushed on toward the road by the light of a crescent moon.
Then the howling began, canine cries on all sides. That was bad enough but then the howling stopped abruptly. He peered into the near darkness and saw something slinking toward him, its yellow eyes glowing. Then there were more eyes. Wolves? Coyotes? Or feral dogs? It didn't matter. He hated dogs. He reached for the ax but it was gone, lost when he fell. He retreated backwards slowly. The pack moved in closer for a kill. He turned and ran, falling in the mud, screaming, crawling, moving as fast as he could. First one boot, then another fell off but he kept going.
The animals kept coming and coming. He could hear their quiet snuffling behind him. He screamed for help. He cried for his mother, long dead. He got to the edge of the field and ran into the farmyard through the open gate. He looked back. The pack had stopped right there. He could see the eyes glowing but they didn't come any closer. He was safe as long as he was in the farmyard. He was covered in mud, he'd lost the ax, but he was safe for now.
He limped back to the farmhouse, crying. He pulled off his filthy clothes and fell into the bed, sobbing.
In the morning, the boots were at the door, cleaned and dry. The ax, newly sharpened, was on the kitchen table with a note. “Best start on your wood pile. You'll need it this winter.”
Wood? There were trees in the yard, some kind of orchard, but he wouldn't be here this winter. He'd rather die. He couldn't walk out through the marsh or fields, but maybe he could drive out in that old International truck. He went out to the garage and got to work. There was no manual but he should be able to figure it out. At least it was something to do. He began by sorting out the parts laying in the dirt and cleaning them, putting them into boxes he found in the house, remembering what he learned in prison. He found some of the tools he needed in the garage, others in outbuildings. Some had to be adapted. It was a job that stretched into days, then weeks. He began to be fond of the old girl. He even thought about painting her some other color than red but the paint he found had dried up.
The garage had everything he needed for the repairs. There were ramps so he could raise the truck up and work under her. He didn't exactly understand why there was a rope over a beam that stretched down to the International but found it useful in pulling up the engine block when he had to work on it.
He figured it was August though he didn't have a calendar. He was running low on food so he would have to finish and drive the truck out soon. The farmer had long ago finished planting and now was cultivating the crops. If he had planted corn, the prisoner could have walked out of the farm during the day, hiding in the corn rows, but it was only soy beans and they didn't reach any height at all. Night time was the howling and the shape of the beasts prowling around.
He was sick of tuna. He longed for meat. He dreamed of fast food hamburgers. He once found a rabbit nest filled with baby bunnies. He killed one with the ax, but didn't know how to clean it, or for that matter, cook it. He tossed it in the field. The next day all that was left was bones. The dogs cleaned everything including the bunny's ears. He left the rabbits alone after that. He explored the yard looking for something else edible in last year's vegetable garden. He didn't find so much as a bean. No, he had to finish the truck.
Finally, the last bolt was tightened. He made a show of cleaning the old girl up, polishing the fenders and wiping down the cracked upholstery. He was ready. He turned the key. She started right up! He left her there running. He was in the house collecting things to take along, when the International stopped dead. What the hell? He checked her over again, and finally looked at the dials on the dash. There was no gas. The old gas that had been in her tank was now in a puddle on the dirt floor. There was no gas anywhere on the farm. Nothing. And he was out of food.
All those days. All that time working All that time living in a house crawling with bugs. He didn't even have any more tuna. He couldn't leave. He could see the dogs or whatever they were at the edge of the yard. He could see the farmer going back and forth, back and forth. The nights were colder and he had cut no wood. He had planted no vegetable garden and even if he had he would have been no better at canning a harvest than the last person was.
He walked to the orchard to see if anything grew there that he could eat. He found wormy plums and apples that were as bad. There were some green pears, they might do. He stumbled on something and looked down. It was a stone marker of some kind, nesting in weeds. There were a few markers, in a row at the back of the orchard. He leaned down to examine one. It had numbers on it. He went up and down the row. They all had numbers. Familiar numbers.
He rushed back to the garage for a shovel. He frantically dug into the space in front of the marker closest to the farmhouse. Nearly six feet into the hole he hit the wooden coffin.
He threw the garage doors wide open. He understood now why the rope was hung over the beam. It was the only escape from the farm. The sun shone into the garage, illuminating him as he knotted the rope. He knew how to do that, he learned that in prison, too. As the setting sun glowed on him, he climbed onto the roof of the International and said good-bye to the farmhouse.
Out in the field, the farmer brought his tractor to a stop and turned off the engine. He pulled his cell phone out of his overalls, and dialed a number.
“Yeah? How's it going Tim?”
“Ready for a new prisoner,” he told the warden.