As we scaled down the wall, the taste of fresh air burst in my mouth and, for the first time in years, I felt the cool night air blow through my clothes.
It was a tough climb down, but we weren't in any position to rest, my partner, Tobias, and I. It was his plan and my ingenuity that got us out of that godforsaken hellhole, and the pain in my muscles from the climb was nothing compared to the pain of losing my freedom. In his eyes, I could see the same conviction.
On the shore of the island, far from the piercing cries of the sirens and the barking of the watch dogs, we finally granted ourselves a minute to catch our breath. I could smell the salty ocean and feel it fill my lungs: a sweet aroma compared to the medley of odors inside the prison. I gazed at the stars. “Look up there,” I said to Tobias, pointing to the sky, “What do you see?”
“The sky? The stars. I don't really see much of anything.”
“You know what I see?” I asked, not expecting an answer. Pausing for emphasis, I stated, “Opportunity. You know, Tobias, I've always been an opportunist.” In those billions of stars and planets, in the almost endlessness of the ocean on all sides, I saw my freedom and all the possible new lives I could create. Everything was stretched out before me like an empty canvas, and I had the paint.
Tobias had carried a makeshift raft that I worked on for months, made of raincoats provided to us and our inmates. We promptly inflated it and hopped on. The salty ocean air burned my eyes. I welcomed the new sensations. The taste of the water on my lips, the dirt and grime clinging to my now wet clothes. The pure silence of the whole experience. Tobias stared into the sky, apparently seeing for the first time what I had seen earlier. Tears smeared the dirt on both our faces.
We never saw the rock sticking out of the water off the shore. The darkness of night and the waves hid it from us until our raft smashed into it, knocking Tobias and me on our faces, and then the death hiss of the air as it drained from a puncture in the raft. We were almost close enough to turn back, but the current was pulling us out farther and our paddles had fallen in the water during the impact. My heart raced in my chest and I could feel the adrenaline pumping through me. Tobias was yelling something, wide-eyed, frightened. We both tried to paddle the raft toward the shore with our hands, but it was too late. It had flattened and we were sinking with nothing to hold onto.
Three days later, a young officer approached the chief guard of the prison. The constant roar of inmates fighting and yelling was never out of earshot in this place.
“Sir, their bodies were found, caught against the rocks on the southern end of the island.”
“Thank you, officer. I want a full report on my desk by the end of the week. Dismissed.” The young officer nodded and walked out of the room, leaving the chief alone. The chief turned, a deep frown crossed his face, a permanent feature of the man. “I knew those sumbitches wouldn't make it. Nobody's ever made it off this island, and nobody ever will.”
Back at the sinking raft.
As the raft sank and Tobias held onto it with his life, I swam east just like I'd practiced every night for the last six months. I grabbed onto the same rock to which I tied my personal boat, made from wood and other debris that had washed up on short, much sturdier than the raincoat raft. I turned to watch Tobias sink, as I knew he would. He couldn't swim; almost nobody inside could swim. After decades locked indoors, it's easy to forget.
I hopped in my boat and dumped the body of the man I'd killed, only an hour before we'd left, into the water. I untied the twine, I made, and pulled inside the boat and began rowing away. Tobias's body floated against the rocks just like the other man's. Their faces would be picked away by the fish and they would be unrecognizable by the time they were found.
I leaned back in my boat and looked once more at the sky. Freedom, I thought before closing my eyes. For the first time in twenty-five years, I finally knew freedom.