F. John Sharp

      Willis bursts from the tree-line and scrambles up the embankment. Tracks stretch each direction like the future he left, predictable, unending. Tar soaked ties, pungent in the August heat, precisely spaced, remind him of the life he just escaped.

      Winded, he scans the sky, looking for the glint of metal that would betray the search planes. He listens for the whine of an engine, the baying of dogs; for a voice to yell 'halt,' or a single gunshot he would feel before he hears. When he stops, the suddenness of his solitude drains him and he bends over, hands on knees, and breathes like he hasn't drawn a breath during his entirety in prison. Like he has to make up for five years of living without air.

      He thinks back to how hard it was to take the first few breaths in the meat coolers, drowning in the cold, dry air. But there was also a freshness to it, like the chilling made it pure. In the cooler, it felt like the life-grime that clung to him like sweat was lifted and he was cleansed, if only for a shift. He has often wished he could stay there forever.

      Lately, at night, an image has been insinuating itself into his idle mind. He is once again in a cooler, sharpening a long filet knife, carving into a slab of prime beef, slicing around the bones, trimming off the fat, where he can feel cleansed of the grime he hasn't been able to shake for five years. He doesn't know where that is, but he figures meat-cutting is all he has. He has lost track of his brother. His mother is dead; his father almost. All his friends will be watched. And never mind Belinda. She stuck with him as long as anyone could be expected. Forever was a lot to ask.

      He remembers signing the papers a few weeks ago. Or was it a few months? The equidistant alignment of the walls and the days and the routines have been a metronome that count off the pace, but leave him to add up the total, the tick-tocks bouncing inside his brain until their numbers are lost in monotony.

      He stops and inhales the smell of the forest, the same forest whose piney odors, wafting over the prison walls, have always smelled like freedom. Hidden in the branches, the birds chirp tunes that seem cheerier than those they sing near the prison. He has often watched them fly over the walls and into the compound to scavenge scraps, but they would do so silently, quickly, as if hoping to avoid incarceration themselves. Willis would try to imagine that he was flying with them, breaking the plane of the walls, dipping and diving in and out, flaunting their liberty, taunting the un-free.

      He sits on a tie, halfway between the worn lengths of steel, which stretch hard and forever like his concurrent life terms, meeting in the middle and becoming one, then fading into nothing. They are coming for him; he can almost feel them getting closer. He looks around again, listens again. He knows he is only a whisker of bad luck from months in solitary.

      He tries to see ahead to tomorrow, and the next tomorrow, and on and on. Always scanning for the glint; always listening for the hounds. He wonders how he will sleep, whether he can ever rest. A familiar uneasiness churns in his chest. He tries to separate the past from the future, tries to see the difference between in and out. It occurs to him that constant vigilance is a prison of a different kind.

      Willis hadn't counted on this - his next step bearing such a burden. He expected freedom to be sweet and light, like that of the birds who seem to taunt him still. Both paths now seem the same to his mind, but they each run too far into the distance to see the end. Maybe there is no choice, he thinks. Maybe one path is just a small shift right or left of the other.

      So he sits for a moment in the middle. The time for running is ahead, if only a few minutes. He leans back, with his eyes squeezed shut and the sun warming his flesh, trying not to touch either rail.