Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Tanner stopped for a moment and listened intently. The only sound was his ragged breathing and the occasional crumbling of dirt and rock as the walls around his body collapsed slightly. His eyes burned through the dry, dusty air and his throat choked on the dirt thrown up around him as he continued crawling through the small tunnel. The light behind him was fading and he knew that before long he would be hugged by darkness nearly as closely as he was now hugged by the earth piled up all around him.

Stretching his arms forward, he inched himself along the hard dirt floor, his toes kicking hard at the tunnel behind him. The tunnel was only slightly taller than he was as he crawled along on his elbows, stomach and knees, but sometimes it sunk a few inches and he felt the roof graze the top of his head. Once he had misjudged the distance and raised his head too soon, pounding into the packed earth above him and rearing back with searing pain pulsing through his skull. Since then, he kept his head low, his chin just above his fists as he pulled his arms beneath him to inch forward.

Tanner had started into the tunnel just after the "Lights Out" call earlier that night. The first few yards were the easiest. The tunnel was the biggest back at his cell when his energy was high and his patience sure. The further the tunnel went, the smaller it became until finally it had stopped completely.

Tanner had given up altogether. But then a voice from a nearby cell called a "Farewell" through the walls and claimed to be leaving. At first Tanner thought the prisoner was giving a suicide speech. Those speeches were far too common and had been coming more and more frequently as the prisoners' rations continued to dwindle. As Tanner listened to the man's rantings, they took a different turn and Tanner realized that the man was either totally insane or truly intended to see the outside world soon. Tanner called back and it soon became clear that the man had nearly completed his own tunnel. He had begun to hear the sound of water as he dug and knew that he was nearing the stream and thus could be free within that next night.

After some more shouting, Tanner learned the direction he needed to dig in order to potentially intercept the other man's tunnel. The voice in the darkness wished him luck and then let the air fall still again. Tanner sat in silence for a few more minutes and then decided to resume his tunnel. He turned the path sharply to the right and began to dig again every night. After a week of digging, he broke through.

Curious to see the other man's cell, he turned back towards the prison and followed the tunnel there. The entrance had been filled in with new dirt. It was still soft enough that Tanner knew he could dig through if he had to, but he also knew that it was likely covered with rocks or some other method of securing the cell against future escapes. He returned to his own cell, covered the tunnel, and fell into a heavy and peaceful sleep.

And now, Tanner crawled. And crawled. And crawled. Dirt fell from the walls as his wide shoulders rubbed against the cramped corners. Rocks dug into his body as he scraped himself along the ground towards his freedom. He had no watch, no way of keeping time. Everything he had was stripped from him when he was tossed in his cell four years ago. He longed to have it back.

The darkness around him grew thicker with each small inch he moved forward. Early in his crawling, he had realized that he'd left his light on back in his cell. He debated going back and turning it off, knowing that if a guard noticed it, he'd be caught. He finally decided he'd rather keep crawling since he had no idea how long the tunnel was and he didn't want to waste any time. Besides, if someone found his empty cell and started crawling after him, at least he'd have a good head start.

So Tanner crawled on. The air grew thick around him. The tunnel was very tight in spots and he found he had to widen it on occasion. Whoever crawled it before him was a smaller man than he.

Everything was black now. It unnerved him not being able to see anything. Pulling himself on based only on what he could feel beneath his rough fingers. His fingers darted ahead then gripped the dirt and latched his arm down hard from finger to elbow to help pull his body along. The tunnel was so short now he could barely bend his knees to allow his feet to help push him along. He was truly inching along like a bug.

Tanner's ears perked up as he heard new sounds. He stopped immediately and strained to hear them again. Moments later he heard soft, deep, hollow sounds echo through the earth. The noise was muffled but heavy. He decided that perhaps some creature was lumbering along the ground somewhere above him. He had no idea how far below ground he was and so had no idea what could possibly be creating the thuds rumbling around him.

Suddenly the occasional heavy thumping was replaced by a rumbling that sounded like rolling thunderclaps far across the plains. The noise was deafening within his small dirt cocoon. A few rocks fell from the tunnel wall and hit the exposed skin of his arms and face. The falling rocks jolted him back to the urgency of his situation and he crawled forward with new found energy.

Tanner was sweating now and his arms and face were caked with chunks of soft earth. The rumbling was behind him but still echoed all around him. He thought the walls around him continued to shake but then he realized it was his own body that was shaking. He stopped and tried to focus inward. To calm himself. To breath softly.

The rumbling behind him began to subside and he calmed himself enough to go on. He opened his eyes, not realizing he had them closed to focus on his breathing. He brought his dirt smeared hand to his face to try and see it. To see something, anything. When he couldn't see his hand even when his finger touched his nose, his mind began reeling again.

He pictured himself back in his cold, hard empty cell, laying idly on the floor day after day, eating tasteless food, breathing tasteless air, and living out his life, if it could be called a life. Then he pictured himself crawling like a worm through thick, heavy dirt, ready to collapse around him at any moment and end his life. He panicked as he twisted his arms and legs around to assess the true size of his new prison. His potential coffin.

He saw himself buried, lying motionless under piles of dirt. He thought about how it would feel to die in there, being unable to move, unable to scream for help. He realized he would likely suffocate and die peacefully. Then he began to think about the possibility of suffocating as he crawled along the ground. He wondered if the previous prisoner had suffocated somewhere ahead of him and lay there now, blocking the path to freedom, trapping him in and marking Tanner's grave with his corpse.

He scraped along the ground as fast as he was able. His head pounded with each breath. His eyes burned even though he couldn't see. He closed them but found this panicked him more so he opened them and stared into the impenetrable darkness.

Another noise came, this time from his right. He couldn't identify it at first. It was a shuffling, soft and rhythmic. He paused to listen. It didn't change either in volume or tempo. Wary but intrigued, he continued on, trying to match the pace of his crawling to the pattern of the rising and falling that the sound provided. As he crawled, he noted that his own tunnel began to turn toward the sound. The sound grew louder as he crawled and suddenly he realized he could make out the very slight grey silhouettes of his arms beneath his chin. A few more yards, and he saw the shape of his fingers before him.

The sound was louder now and somewhat melodic. Tanner's heart leapt inside him when he recognized it as the sound of water bounding over rocks in a riverbed. The air around him was growing lighter both in terms of visibility and in terms of freshness. He took a long deep breath through his nose and felt his lungs rejoice as they were filled completely by an air slightly cooler than the heavy, dank air he'd been breathing for the past few hours.

Tanner's entire body was burning from the strain of his crawl, yet he crawled faster than he thought he could. He was exploding with the excitement and hope of finally being free. With each inch he progressed, his mind filled him with another memory of the freedom of years past. He thought of the farm he'd grown up on. He wondered about his parents. About his younger brother and sister. He saw himself wrestling with his brother on the front porch during a summer sunset. He saw himself at school, heckling the teacher and flirting with Katie Shepherd. He remembered his first date with her. And his last. He saw his best friend Zach Thompson heading off to save the world, and never coming back. His entire free life whisked through his mind. He felt tears run down his face as he thought of all he'd lost and all he was about to regain.

The air continued to grow cool and light around him. He no longer noticed the sharp rocks scraping along his chest as he inched along. His head jolted up and slammed against the earth roof when the passage in front of him was suddenly a wide awkward circle of light. He scrambled along the ground as fast as he could to reach the exit to the tunnel. He heard the stream rolling nearby and thought he heard leaves rustling in trees.

He reached the opening and pushed his arms through, straining to pull his body behind them. He bent his knees as much as possible, digging his toes into the ground and pressing forward hard. He nearly jumped from the hole and tumbled down a slight hill, coming to a sharp stop on a rocky soil at the bank of the stream.

He collapsed with exhaustion but let his eyes fly around his new surrounding, taking everything in. The night was dark, but not as dark as his tunnel. Ahead of him, the world moved slowly by a shimmering stream of water. He saw large rocks protruding from the stream and noted thin silver-white trees extending upward on the other side of the stream. He followed the trunks up into the leafy branches and saw a deep blue sky above him, dotted with stars. He rolled to his back and stared at the stars, his eyes welling with tears again. A laugh fell from his lips.

"Don't laugh too much just yet." The voice was soft, yet strong. It came from his left, slightly upstream and back towards the whole he had crawled through.

Tanner craned his body to the side and scanned the bank of the stream, looking for the owner of the voice. He found it in the shadow of a man, seated on the grass at the edge of the bank. He was too far away to see distinctly, but Tanner could see that he was big.

Worse, Tanner saw that a rifle lay across his legs and he held a pistol loosely in his right hand.

"Come on over where I can see you." The man grunted and waved his pistol, pointing to a spot of ground a few feet ahead of him. Tanner saw the starlight glint off the cold steel of the gun and caught a brief flash of light from the man's smile.

Despite the despair pulling his soul down, Tanner summoned strength from deep inside him and pushed himself to his knees to crawl over and face the man.


milai said...

The ending was a surprise. No wonder the title has a question mark after it.

Great job! :)

Okie said...

Thanks. Not sure yet if I'll continue it or not...right now it feels too "count of monte cristo" so I'm not sure which direction to take it.

Brii333 said...

DANGIT!!! what happens????? you totally just cut that off. it was very cruel of you.

anyhoo, excellent writing, definately kept me reading. your style of writing creates an atmosphere of suspense, and makes the reader worry for the character.

pretty please finish it?